So EL James held an Ask Me Anything on Twitter the other day. It went about as predictably as Bill Cosby’s “Ask Me Anything” session went, which is to say full of angry accusations, snarkiness, and hostility. Really, celebrities, you shoulda seen this coming.
Still, I view EL James in the same sense that I do Margaret Mitchell and”Gone With The Wind” in the sense that I’ve never read anything by either of them – I’ve just seen the immense cultural footprint that both of them have left behind. And I’m not particularly thrilled by either: James’ modelling of abusive relationships as admirable (with the extra bonus of BDSM being framed as this thing that healthy people ultimately walk away from), Mitchell’s idolization of the Deep South and slave culture.
That said, I’m always shocked when people target the author as if they created this ugliness out of whole cloth.
Now, this isn’t to say that EL James and Margaret Mitchell aren’t responsible for glorifying bad things. But plenty of people write novels that glorify bad things. Hell, JG Ballard wrote a novel glorifying the sexiness of near-fatal car crashes and the people who get off on that. There’ve been a thousand bad fanfics dealing with abusive BDSM fantasies in one method or another. Most of these stories languish in obscurity, like most tales.
So when I see a big ugly phenomenon like this, I don’t see the author as being some all-powerful Evil, dictating cultural paradigms from on high:
I see them as accidentally tapping into a deep well of ugliness that people want to believe in.
And yeah, the author is culpable for polishing these turdy ideals to a glossy consumable shine, but ultimately this shit wouldn’t sell if people didn’t want it.
Talking about EL James like she single-handedly created bad BDSM, baffles me. No. She’s one of a hundred thousand fanfic writers who peddled fantasies – and something about this fantasy connected with millions of people who wanted this so badly that when they got it, they couldn’t stop thinking about it.
In that sense, I see the audience for this sort of thing like a vast field of dry grass – if EL James didn’t write a bad BDSM book to spark these shady desires, eventually some other schmuck would have done it. If Margaret Mitchell didn’t write a paean to the Old South, well, there were enough other people writing potboilers that someone else would have stumbled across it eventually.
I look at these authors like I view Mike Huckabee – reprehensible, to be sure, but if dude had a heart attack then some other schmuck would hit the limelight, because some portions of America deeply want dippy fundie conservatism, and they’ll keep looking until they find someone who fulfills that need.
Which doesn’t make Mike Huckabee a great person, for fine-tuning his gay-bashing skills to such an extreme – but someone only becomes popular by people agreeing with them.
Mind you, not all people talk about EL James like she’s responsible – many correctly chastise her for indulging a harmful need. But a lot of people attack her like somehow she made relationship abuse so compelling that she lured people, Pied Piper-style, into believing this is the way romance would be. And admittedly, I haven’t read it – but judging from the ham-handed quality of the prose and characterization I’ve seen thus far, I think it’s highly unlikely that she converted people to this viewpoint via the quality of her words.
Truth is, some folks want to hear this shit. And with millions of writers trying billions of stories, eventually one of them is going to catch that spark.
I guess you can only yell at one of them directly, but still. They didn’t do this to anyone.
People chose to love it.
So I’m writing a story where a monster who secretly wants to be a teenaged girl is trying to fit in. The reasons are… complicated.
But because of other story reasons, she needs to travel to a strange town and play a pickup game of sports with other teens. And… I don’t know how sports works when you’re a young teenager.
So. What I need is a place where a kid from out of town can go and play a game with other kids, with parents watching. (So even though there are pickup games of basketball, that wouldn’t be suitable, as it needs to be the sort of place where a lot of parents would be hanging out.)
If she has to try out for a league or something, that’s fine, but the end result has to be that she’s actually having a good time with other teens playing this whatever-it-is, so she can let her guard down and things can go terribly terribly wrong in front of a crowd of watchers.
But I don’t think most sports have a “show up and play” attitude for new kids, and I have no idea if tryouts usually culminate in some sort of game, or if that only happens with certain sports when you’re a kid.
So. Can someone who knows how these things work clue me in? Thanks in advance, folks.
The time has come for my Annual Greed List – the large (and, yes, uncut) list of things I desire for my birthday, on July 3rd, which is the most important day of the year. Why do I do this? If you’re really interested, here’s a brief history of the Greed List.
The briefer version, however, is that I think “What you want” is a reflection of “Who you are” at this moment – your music, your hobbies, your fandoms, who you are as a person. I find it fascinating as a history, watching how what I’ve desired has mutated (the shifts away from physical objects are so bizarre, as I used to want tons of CDs and DVDs and now that’s mostly a computer file somewhere), and remembering what I thought I wanted so badly but turned out to be too much effort to turn into a hobby (fire poi), and the things I did want that became habit (the straight razor).
And while I guess I could just toss all this on an Amazon Wishlist and send you over, why bother? I want you to know who I am in this moment, and so I not only list what I want, but explain why I want it.
So here it is. Here’s who I am this year, expressed in what I want, in descending order of most-lust to least-lust.
You To Purchase Either Flex or its sequel The Flux ($7.99 or less).
So hey! I’m a professional author now! So if you wanna make me happy, do the BUY MY BOK dance and either a) purchase Flex, if you haven’t already, which features videogamemancers and brainwashed government abduction squads and an amputee divorcee who makes magic with paperwork –
– or b) advance-purchase its the sequel, The Flux, which features the World’s Most Dangerous Eight-Year-Old Girl, an in-depth look at the business structure of Samaritan Mutual, and two very unlikely romances.
Either way, you’ll have a new book and I’ll be happy. And people seem to be digging Flex, so I think most of you will be content with your purchase.
A 70″ Television in Ultra 4K HD ($lots).
“But wait, Ferrett!” you cry. “Didn’t you purchase that television last week?” Indeed we did. That’s why this year’s Greed List is sparse; we spent all our dang money. This is not only my birthday present, but also my Christmas present.
It is, in fact, a completely awesome television, though, and it finally lets me play games like Wolfenstein: New Order in a format large enough I can read the instructions.
I’M KILLING NAZIS, PEOPLE.
Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, on PS4 ($59.99)
Here’s an interesting fact about me:
Videogames are my meditation.
I am too high-strung to stare at a wall and inhale incense: no, I have to be accomplishing something. And Gini has noted that if I am accomplishing real-world stuff all the time, I get bitchy and short with her. She has actually requested that I go buy a damn videogame, because then I’ll spend an entire weekend doing nothing but Beating The Game, and when I emerge I’ll have spent many long hours focused on one thing, all my neuroses falling away because I know I can beat this game.
The Witcher is getting good reviews, and it sounds like a Fallout-inspired hoot where I walk around in third-person killing things, and I love killing things in third person. I haven’t done that since Dragon Age.
Corner Gas: The Movie Blu-Ray ($16.99)
If you’ve never seen Corner Gas, you’re missing out on one of the most sarcastic sitcoms ever created. It’s a nothing sitcom, where people in the small town of Dog River perpetrate increasingly looney schemes upon one another until they approach a sort of peevish magnificence.
They Kickstarted the movie, which I missed out on, which allowed them to – well, the sitcom didn’t really need a finish, being rather episodic, but it apparently got a quite nice ending here, so I’d like to see it.
Harold and Maude: The Criterion Collection ($22.99)
Rewatching Harold and Maude the other day made me realize just how much one movie can influence your ideals of romance. Harold and Maude are an unlikely couple – Harold is a suicidal teenager, savagely oppressed by his parents, whereas Maude is a seventy-nine-year-old criminal – but what makes them become romantically entangled is, well, they’re good for each other. They both have bizarre hobbies. They both share enthusiasm for things nobody else does. And you don’t really recognize it as a romance until about two-thirds of the way through, because this romance is rooted so thoroughly in shared camaraderie that the sexual connection is nearly incidental.
I have to thank Harold and Maude for my relationship with Gini. I really do.
And so this Criterion Edition – the Criterion Editions are always the best editions – has all behind-the-scenes extras I crave, and I must have it. I must.
An Aside: Why No Books, Ferrett?
Normally, I have at least three or four books on the greed list, but I just got off a monstrous book tour to support Flex, and at every indie bookstore I went to I bought at least two books. I am swamped with books, drowned in books, heaped high with so many books I cannot function.
It is wonderful.
Bosch RA 1181 Router Table ($125)
One of the joys of this year is flexing my woodworking muscles – as we speak, my friend Eric and I are refitting my garage to be a complete woodshop, complete with pull-down workbenches and better lights and customized shelves for all the equipment. The goal is to be able to work year-round with a space heater or two.
Woodworking involves a lot of trips to Lowes to pick up just one more thing – some screws, a pocket jig, some more wood – and I keep returning to tell Gini, “Boy, you would not believe how much money we saved today!” Theoretically, at some point I’ll make enough furniture that we’ll actually start turning a profit on the new equipment in our house, but right now we’re at least $1500 in the hole and I’m just fine with that.
(The end goal, which I anticipate I’ll get to in about two years, is to make a hidden passage bookshelf for our basement. That’s going to be super-tricksy, though, involving a steel frame and very closely-fit shelves interlocking, so I’m going to get very good at other things first.)
In any case, the router I have right now sucks – and I would have a new router on my list, except hey, my friend Heather’s boyfriend is getting rid of his very nice router for half the price, so I’m trading up. What we need is a table to put the router in that isn’t the sucktacular table we have now (which literally requires two people and about a half an hour to swap a router in or out), so this would be good for our woodworking needs.
(Eventually, I’ll get that dovetail jig I’ve had my eye on, but for right now it’s very nice to get handy. I wouldn’t say I’m good with wood yet, but I can certainly put together stuff from plans, and it’s very much flexing my radically poor visualization skills.)
Crazy Hawaiian Shirts (priceless)
Hey, if you see something really ugly that’s about in my size (usually XL, but Hawaiian shirts vary radically), get it. I need something to add to my army of loud shirts. I enjoy this silliness.
Back when LiveJournal was the social network to hang out at, I was the shadow. People left scads of comments on my journal – but I was the ghost, consuming their words silently and then moving on. Friends thought I didn’t read their stuff, and were quite surprised when we met up in person and I was conversant with all of their blog entries.
I read. I didn’t comment.
At the time, I considered that a weakness.
But as time has passed, I’ve come to see my lack of commenting as a strength. Because I don’t comment unless I have something particularly salient to say. And a lot of comments, well, are kinda obvious, and I figure people would know them, and so I don’t bother.
ENTRY: I don’t like $THING.
COMMENT: Ah ha, I am doing $THING as a humorous response!
ENTRY: Here is a metaphor for politics or relationships.
COMMENT: This metaphor is imperfect! It does not account for this corner case.
ENTRY: Here is a musing on relationships of a certain type.
COMMENT: You forgot to mention the other kinds of relationships!
ENTRY: I really love $THING.
COMMENT: I hate $THING. Here, let me shit on your enthusiasm.
ENTRY: Here is a musing on what it’s like to be a member of race/color/creed.
COMMENT: You forgot to mention what it’s like to be a member of other race/color/creed!
ENTRY: Here is an entry with an obvious joke to be made.
COMMENT: *makes obvious joke*
ENTRY: Here is an extremely specific request to ask you all for information, with specific rules, because otherwise this information will prove useless to me.
COMMENT: *ignores rules, gives five billion unrelated suggestions*
ENTRY: Here is a technique that $PEOPLE_WITH_CERTAIN_PROBLEMS can use to improve their lives.
COMMENT: But this technique would hurt $PEOPLE_WITH_COMPLETELY_OPPOSITE_PROBLEMS!
And so on.
Now, this makes it sound like I mind comments, which I don’t. Most comments are enthusiastic affirmations of whatever’s being written about, and that’s awesome. (Even if the affirmation bias can lead writers to believe that they are correct when in actuality, people are simply unwilling to confront someone in their own turf, where they’re all but guaranteed to lose.) I don’t mind it when people go, “Hey, yeah!”
But whenever I write an essay, I’m now experienced enough to know what kinds of dissenting comments will be made. They’re obvious, because the flaws in the essay are equally obvious, to my view. I’ve often thought about writing an essay that I know will get hits, and then secretly writing – in advance – a summary of the kinds of negative comments I’ll receive on said essay, just to see how accurate I am. I suspect I’d be pretty much on target.
And to a certain extent, I cringe, because obvious fart joke is obvious. Obvious criticism of a narrowly-scoped essay for not addressing global issues is obvious. Obvious discussion that metaphors are imperfect because they are metaphors is obvious.
And I’ve seen some writers slow their roll on writing because, well, people mean well, but they know if they mention “runs like the wind” somebody’s going to make a fart joke, AH HA HA, and okay, there it is. Right now, somebody’s going, “I’m going to make a mega-comment that combines all the categories of bad comments Ferrett listed!” and lemme tell you, I know that’s coming.
When someone makes a new criticism or joke, I am all over that like I am all over a cupcake. It’s great! It’s fresh! It’s awesome! Even if it’s sometimes a very painful cupcake, where I’m being called on the carpet for new reasons! It’s a reason to write an essay, to have someone come along and say something that’s not obvious, and expand your damn mind! It’s why I interact with humanity, that great hope of seeing the mind-blowing comment!
And I do. Several times a week. That’s the awesome.
(And that behavior differs somewhat on FetLife, where the central stream of pictures and posts also notes the comments you made on other entries, so often making a comment leads people to read the original entry. Most comments are dead-ends, but given the right social engineering they can be a gateway for other people to see what you’re doing, and in that, I support commenting as a method of advocacy.)
Yet for years, I felt bad because I didn’t comment unless I had something really interesting to say. Yet having interacted with authors who have much larger blogs than I, I have come to believe that for me, this is a better path. When I say something, I try to go beyond the obvious gag and find something deeper, and if I can’t, I remain silent. If I read an entry and go, “Huh, that seems a pretty narrowly-defined blog post,” I can wait an hour and someone else will make that exact same comment for me, and then I’ll feel like, “Okay, point is made.”
And I wonder if those authors were expecting the comment, same as I expected to see it.
Now, I treat my comments like blog posts. I have a hundred thoughts a day I could share with you. I only share the most interesting. And there’s nothing wrong with commenting wildly, or widely, or even obviously, but I’m the sort of person who is utterly uninterested in the predictable.
So I comment very rarely.
I tend to think of that as a positive strength these days, even if it does mean that a lot of people never know I was there. And maybe, for some people, that “I was here!” is the whole point in the absence of a Facebook-style “Like” system where they can’t just give a virtual thumbs-up and keep on truckin’.
So if you’ll recall, my friend Bill has been perfecting some really awesome fan art based on my book Flex – well, specifically the character Valentine, everyone’s favorite kinky videogamemancer. And he applied the colors, and I could not be happier.
He says he’s going to write up a post on the process of making this art, and I surely hope he does. (Or maybe he has; I find Tumblr maddeningly impossible to navigate, proving how wretchedly old I am.)
The only thing that threw me about this piece was the stray bits of garbage on the floor, until I realized this was supposed to reflect Valentine’s messiness. Oh, man, Valentine levels of messiness would make it so you couldn’t see the floor. But I love Valentine’s look so much. (Go check out his other art.)
Also, the podcast New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy interviewed me, and it was awesome. Rob went above and beyond the usual podcasting by actually transcribing excerpts from the talk, like so:
On why why a world with Flex also needs flux:
“Flux evens out the odds of magic…. I really hate novels where magic is this thing you can do … without any kind of cost…. Frequently what I see is, ‘Oh, I’m a magician. I’ll raise an army of the dead and make my castle out of magic,’ and where is any challenge in that for your characters? Where do they have any stopping points to what they can do?… A big tension in the book as to whether the mancers should even use their magic.”
On his approach to writing:
“I’m what’s called a gardener writer, in the business. There are plotters who basically sit down and plot out all their books beat by beat and know their ending the minute they start their first sentence. And Flex, like every story I’ve ever written– basically I wrote an interesting first paragraph and followed it randomly until the end of the book.”
Anyway, I neep away about my process, and how I came up with some of the central themes of Flex (which is still available in bookstores, and the sequel is still coming out in October), so if you feel like listening to me talk for about half an hour, well, here I am.
When our daughter was twelve, she would shriek whenever we had plans for her. “I don’t wanna go!” she’d sulk. “I would feel so much better if I just stayed inside and played videogames all day instead of going out to this picnic laser-light show with fireworks and all the family friends.”
As an introvert, I sympathized. But she’d already been staying inside, playing videogames for three days straight on her summer vacation, and so it was time for a change of pace.
And just about every time she’d come home glowing, talking about how awesome that was, bouncing and recalling the way the sky lit up. When asked about her summer, she’d talk enthusiastically about all the things we dragged her to.
Then, when she was sixteen, we dragged her off to something else after a few days spent luxuriously hermiting and killing virtual Nazis. Except now she was fully teenaged, and what had been sulking turned into a full-fledged fight.
“I’m not going to this concert!” she cried.
“You are,” we said. “We bought tickets. Tickets that you agreed to at the time.”
“You never listen to me!” she said. “Why do you never listen to me?”
And we dragged her, and in fact she loved seeing “Weird Al” Yankovic live. On the way home, she was gushing about how amazing it was, watching him nail the tricky raps on “White and Nerdy.”
“Now,” I said, seeing she was in a better mood. “You wanna know why we never listen to anything you say?”
That got her attention.
“Because you’ve trained us to ignore you.”
“Because you raise a big stink every time it’s time to go out of the house – and I mean every time – and we have this huge fight with you, and nine times out of ten it turns out that you really loved what we had planned. So by screaming ‘I DON’T WANNA’ regardless of the entertainment planned, you have taught us that in fact, you have no goddamned clue what you actually like to do. And so…” I spread my hands. “We ignore you.”
“But…” She pondered this. “Sometimes I’m really tired. Sometimes, I actually don’t want to go out.”
“And on those occasions, you make the exact same fuss as when we haul you out to tonight’s concert, and if we had listened to you, you wouldn’t have gotten to see him do ‘Albuquerque’.”
“But Albuquerque’s my favorite Weird Al song!”
“It is. Which is why we brought you. We want you to have a good time. We actually don’t want to bring you to places where you’ll be miserable. But if you want us to listen to what you want, then you have to teach us to respect what you say you want. And you do that by only complaining when it’s really bad enough to complain about.”
She chewed her lip and thought about that. “Does that mean you’ll listen to me more? About other things, too?”
“Yup. Because you train us to ignore you in one area, it kinda seeps into the others.”
“All right. I’ll try.”
And sometimes, when we had a balloon party with live unicorns and a gateway to goddamned Narnia set up for her, you could see her start to protest – and then she’d swallow, think about it, and go, “All right, lemme get ready.”
And sometimes we had a ticket to a choir of angels – literal angels, descending from Heaven in a sweep of snow-white feathers – and she’d say, “I’m really not up to that.” And we’d hand her the controller and let her kill some more Nazis.
The trick is, as an anxiety-prone person myself, I tend to kick up a lot of fusses. I’ll tell Gini I can’t write this next novel, I’m never going to finish it, my career is going to crash and they’ll banish me to the Black Hole of Calcutta and I’ll never be seen again. Except, of course, that I have been writing for several years since Clarion and I’ve found ways to finish my novels and I have yet to be exiled by the literary world. My opinions often have nothing to do with reality.
And some days, I start to whine at Gini about this dystopian future crashing down around my head, and I think: Do I really need this reassurance, or am I just training her to dismiss my opinions?
Some days I complain. But most days, I hold back my immense tides of writer-angst, saving them for the day I’ll truly need them.
Because what I want to teach her is that when I am freaking out about something, it’s something that matters.
“So what’d you do on Father’s Day, Ferrett?” you may ask. And the answer was this:
Yes, if you’ll recall, Gini and I needed a new television because the old one – which was perfectly good – simply had aged out. We bought it in 2003, in the days before HDMI had been invented, so we couldn’t play the PlayStation 4 on it without getting headaches from the wavery converter box.
And if we’re gonna go big, we went big. The old television, known as the Monster Penis System because I couldn’t stop talking about its size, was 55″.
This is 70″.
We did ultimately decide to get the 4K Ultra HD, because despite all the charts showing us how we could not possibly see the difference between that and the regular HD at ten feet away, we totally could. The colors on this are more vibrant, the darks darker. And maybe that was a trick of the showroom, or maybe it’s because this television attempts to interpolate pixels to give a sort of “HD-and-a-half” effect, but damn, the quality is nice.
We spent most of the day setting it up, because the installation had all sorts of problems: a large television already in place, a complex setup we didn’t want to tear down and recreate, the fact that the old TV needed no stand and this television needs a stand with, as it turned out, a mount.
Fortunately, all my days at StarCityGames had trained me how to deal with rollouts. I approached it like a programmer, ensuring we could roll back if anything went wrong with minimal fuss: first, we build the stand to put it on. Then, we’d turn it on and use its NetFlix app to ensure that wireless connectivity worked and the picture was intact. Then we hooked it up to our sound system to ensure it was compatible…
And when it was done, we had this:
It is incredibly large. Unfeasibly large. We are, sadly, getting used to its extreme width, but for now we’ll occasionally walk into the room and be surprised how this monolithic wall of black is dominating our space.
There was no doubt as to our first movie, of course.
And the thing is, watching Star Wars on Blu-Ray, we noticed details we’d never seen before – mostly in the background. The world is so delightfully dinged and scuffed that we kept pointing at wear patches on the hatches, places where the paint had rubbed off, and by God, notice how Threepio has some stray wires sticking out of his back that have pulled free? (And man, Alec Guinness in hi-def? Hot.)
And Erin brought me beer, with perhaps the sweetest card I’ve ever gotten:
So we drank Radler and moved on to the bourbon and then whooped as we watched Star Wars and then I whipped her butt at Mortal Kombat and talked to Amy via FaceTime.
It was one of the nicest days I’ve had.