Readercon: fanfic vs. original fiction

Warning: Unedited liveblog in progress.

Borders (If Any) Between Fan Fiction and “Original Fiction”.

Panelists: Gwynne Garfinkle (GG), Eileen Gunn (EG), Kate Nepveu (KN), Madeleine Robins (MR), Kenneth Schneyer (KS, leader).

Panel description: Maguire’s Wicked books. Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Chabon’s The Final Solution. Kessel’s “Pride and Prometheus.” Resnick’s “The Bride of Frankenstein.” Reed’s “A Woman’s Best Friend.” Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast. All of these stories employ characters, settings, and pre-existing plots from other authors, yet these authors (with the possible exception of Chabon) would probably deny that what they have written is “fan fiction.” Lee Goldberg has spent thousands of words explaining why his dozens of authorized television tie-in novels are not “fan fiction.” Is there an actual, definable difference between fan fiction and original fiction, or this just another instance, like Margaret Atwood’s, of authors rejecting a label or genre in order to remain “respectable” or “marketable”?

Nepveu suggests that the difference between fanfic and OF is whether or not you can fully appreciate the story without prior knowledge of its canon.

MR suggests multiple impulses to write ff—wanting more of canon, and wanting to subvert canon, and they’re very different impulses.

EG: Tried to write a “straight” Star Trek story, and found she couldn’t help but subvert it. When she pitched her steampunk pastiche to Tor, she was writing in donor characters, and then wrote four steampunk vignettes based on four great steampunk stories. The hardest part was doing it without subversion.

KS cites Pub(?), a Theodora Goss story about the characters not onstage in Jane Austen, and he couldn’t tell the difference between that and “offstage”/”minor character” fanfic.

MR: Georgette Heyer was essentially writing fanfiction…not necessarily of Austen, but neaby

KN: Yuletide story with Elizabeth Bennet as a lieutenant in the Naomi Novik universe.

KS: Goldberg has said that the difference is authorization, and that fanfic is uniformly bad.

KN: There’s clearly a line having to do with whether or not you can be paid, but that’s not a useful line for readers or critics. Sturgeon’s Law still applies, across all of it.

KS: Literature refers to other literature. There are pieces of TS Eliot that do nothing but refer to other literature. Which is why you can find the KJV quoted everywhere, and Shakespeare. Cites a story that refers to Bugs Bunny, someone from The Honeymooners, and Ferarri from Casanova

Chabon’s Final Solution story—unnamed beekping character. Emotional resonance for readers of the Holmes canon, from a throwaway line

MR: Wimsey shows up in a Mary Russell Holmes story, unnamed, which delighted her but upset the Sayers estate. Her daughter wrote crossover with Buffy and HP about Faith and Sirius Black, which was heartbreaking.

KN: Read one about the Duke and Duchess (Sayers) and Holmes waiting for a train. Another reader felt that he was missing something—which he was, because he didn’t get the Holmes canonical background. Was surprised that A Study in Emerald won, for that reason.

EG: The pleasure of writing in a universe is to broaden it in some way.

GG: There are all those shortcuts with a shared canon—you don’t have to describe setting or character.

EG: I didn’t find that to be the case. In the steampunk, the trick was to use their vocabulary, but not to rewrite anything they’d written, and NOT depend on the audience having read the canon.

GG: But in fanfic, writers do often shortcut descriptions, which played to her own inclination to slight those elements.

EG: But you SHOULD be doing it in fanfic, too. And finding ways of showing new things about the Buffy universe to people who already know the world well.

KN: Besides the financial/profit line, another difference—is the person writing it self-IDing as part of the fanfic community? Because those people are often engaging with other stories created by that community—playing with fanon, the shared decisions made by fans about the shared world. The ACD offline fandom has worked out their own stuff.

Watched the rise of fanon in Inception—the fan decisions: Eames is not a thug, Arthur doesn’t wear suits, Yusef and Saito exist. These things happened very quickly, and people who were writing other things had this wall of whiteboy slash to write against. People who self-ID as writing fanfic have access of these other qualities within the community.

KS: You’re speaking of community. And outside of fandom, do we have as much crosstalk about what we should and shouldn’t do?

EG: There is within feminist writing, LGBT writing, there was in the 70s—and it’s exploratory. Wow, that’s…wrong. Why is that wrong? Now that the internet’s here, it’s easier, but before that, with Cyberpunk, there was a lot of discussion about what was wrong, and that was carried on in magazines.

KN: Mentions fanon for SGA—the strange welcoming ceremonies that never actually show up in canon, but that have been around so long that newbs thing they must.

EG: Similar to what happens in gaming. Maybe it helps if you’re a gamer, to enjoy the constrained space.

GG: With the community online it all happens at top speed. One of the addictive things, the speed of the feedback. I’d post Friday night and get up at 4am and my British readers would be awake and commenting. Different from the feedback I’d be looking for with OF, which is more about critique and less about begging for more.

KS: The comments I liked best were the long, ponderous ones.

MR: Shakespeare in Love is Shakespeare FF. Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Slayer. Is there RPF?

KS: Well, yes. See Scalzi and Wheaton. Scalzi was an orc and Wheaton was on a pegasus…kitten. And said yes, do write stories, just don’t slash us…with each other. Because that’s icky for us.

MR: Did you see the XKCD about Strunk/White? And then I found ACTUAL STRUNK/WHITE porn.

KN: Introduces the terms RPF and bandom. Bands that have concept albums and videos and have created personas and so on… Some RPF goes off actor’s apparent RL personas and sometimes it’s political and so on.

FQ: Moorcock wrought Hawkwind FF. It was terrible.

FQ: Do we have a name for playing with someone else’s toys that covers FF and…this other stuff?

EG: I call it referential fiction. Howard Walter says you don’t need a special name.

Fan: Slightly different. Something about another person’s universe.

KN: Not really, because pastiche suggests style…

KS: This is a spectrum, running from the referential to the…broader reference like Russ’s “When It Changed” (which references Goerthe) until you get a purely derivtative work and I despair of finding a line where you say This is derivative and this is not. We’re in a global community and sometimes my reponse includes more or less of what you’ve said.

FQ: Function for slash fic as a way for straight women to …something something. As a queer woman, it’s hard to find myself. Similar impulse to The Persian Boy and so on.

KS: Subversive doesn’t quite cover this stuff. There’s a transformative function that some of this derivative work can be.

FQ: Ishmail—authorized Star Trek novel that’s also Here Comes the Bride fanfic. Author works in nearly every Western TV character and many movie characters, all described, from 60s TV.

 

 

 

 

Readercon: Teleological SF panel

Unedited liveblog in progress. Illiteracies and other mistakes are mine, not the panelists’.

Well, We Know Where We’re Going: The Pseudo-Religiosity of Teleological SF

Panelists: John Crowley (JC), Barry N. Malzberg (BM), James Morrow (JM), Kathryn Morrow (KM), Graham Sleight (GS) (leader).

Panel description: The late Charles N. Brown was a great advocate of the idea that science fiction was teleological: even if it didn’t predict the future, it told us the kind of direction our species was heading. Books like Stapledon’s Last and First Men, Clarke’s Childhood’s End, and Greg Bear’s Blood Music are about that kind of ultimate destiny. But are they also offering a kind of pseudo-religious consolation, a final goal without a God watching over it? When readers seek out science fiction that posits or imagines some kind of final destiny for humanity, are they driven by the same yearning for certainty (even uncomfortable or unhappy certainty) that leads many people to religion?

And they’re off

JM: Why privilege the religious? Why can’t religion by pseudo-aesthetics? (Mentions Shambling Toward Hiroshima)

BM: What?

JM: Quotes the first paragraph of the Wikipedia definition of teleology:

teleology is any philosophical account which holds that final causes exist in nature, meaning that design and purpose analogous to that found in human actions are inherent also in the rest of nature. The word comes from the Greek τέλος, telos, root: τελε-, “end, purpose, (not to be confused with τῆλε, “at a distance, far from”). The adjective “teleological” has a broader usage, for example in discussions where particular ethical theories or types of computer programs (such as “teleo-reactive” programs) are sometimes described as teleological because they involve aiming at goals.

JC: It’s about ends. Ends impicit in beginnings. Or just end-ness. Cat’s Cradle—maybe the end isn’t implicit, or maybe it is.

KM: Is the sense of the grand ambition or destiny of man concerned with teleology—so “the human race has a destiny” would be the pseudo-religiosity of teleological SF, for example.

GS: Physics book that I had suspected to be bonkers and that physicists now tell me genuinely is: Frank Tipler, The Physics of Immortality.

JC: The book that most comes to mind is Brian Aldiss’s Cryptozoic. In which (VAGUE SPOILERS) things are backward from what we might expect, chronologically.

GS: Time’s Arrow, too. (Martin Amis)

BM: Benjamin Button, of course. Fitzgerald.

KM: The yearning toward (?) spiritual progress is hardly only the province of Western SF. Myth of progress?

JC: Does that mean Kurzweil and alla them are thinking in religious terms? What about Greek apotheosis? Is that religious?

BM: And does it matter if it’s labeled “religious”? Whether you accept Christ and live forever or accept virtual reality and live forever, isn’t it the same thing?

Everyone: aliens as substitutes for religious figures who bring about an end.

GS: Whitley Strieber’s Communion, even (noted as being famously dissed by Tom Disch).

BM: What is the gnostic way of looking at things?

GS: Way of seeing things which came a few centuries after Christ and argues that there are ways in which by certain ways of thinking humans can perfect themselves and become one with the whatever forms of perfection exist outside thr world

JC: The wold and bodies we inhabit are NOT the real world, but are imposed on us by bad god-figures who’ve taken over the management of our lower, physical realms. Cites The Matrix, which is a wonderful (though backward) gnostic parable.

JM: Connections to Zoastrianism

KM: Feminist critique: all those nasty bodies with nasty women tempting us to produce more nasty bodies…

JC: Oh, you can give up your nasty body too…it’s not just men.

GS: Disch-inspired thoughts—SF comes into being in the 19th C when religion is declining and when scientific explanations are beginning to encroach on the “inexplicable” that formerly belonged to religion. Do we look inside SF for some of the same constellations as those which we’d find in religion?

JM: Darwin is intrinsically anti-teleological…thought you can turn it on its head and take it off into (citation that I missed). Stephen Jay Gould was willing to sacrifice a lot of pawns when writing Rocks of Ages—cedes meaning and so on, maybe a bishop or a knight—to get to keep science’s claim to Darwinism and so on. “I think Gould gives away the store.”

JC: Fiction can’t make that bargain that Gould made. It has to be about human meaning. Without it, you’ve got lectures on chemistry and…Larry Niven.

BM: Short story about regression and regressing into non-human form (“The Code”?). Tenn’s “Brooklyn Project” —all this well before Ionesco and all the official absurdism, but it’s very much about human absurdity. Sheckley was out to destroy human exceptionalism—there’s plenty of SF that works against the sort of teleology presented on this panel. (Golding? Goldwyn?) Baby Is Three (Sturgeon) moves against Campbell and that direction of SF.

“Our present is the outcome of the past”—myth of progress—that all of history has moved toward this point, with…Astounding Science Fiction being a pinnacle. (“Wig Theory”? I’m lost.)

JM: “The virtues of space travel were three” (Vonnegut)

JC: HG Wells’ Outline of History was the original of that vein of triumphalist SF.

BM: California used to be the place where people went to die. Dreiser’s Sister Carrie makes that point.

GS: Back to the Disch theory that Science fiction is the genre built on lies we want to believe. And so you get Scientology and so on.

GS: Reith Lectures being broadcast on the BBC—the very first is by Bertrand Russell—and it’s all about engineering ourselves, socially and politically, till we ascend to a better state.

JC: I think American exceptionalism is different, and is about absolutely freedom with a god that is the best part of yourself, limitless horizons, etc.

KM: Modern utopias…roughly based on The Republic and so on.

JM: Bradbury story where time travelers come back with lies about the future, but then they seem foreordained, so we make them happen.

BM: There was a statement about the history of American being about absolute freedom, but if you look at the founding documents, I think you might make a Marxist argument about a desire for entrapment. What is really being sought here?

JC: Entrapment is simply the reverse of absolutely freedom, is it not?

And then we wandered away into questions and an argument about American political history and I rested my fingers.

Readercon: Eucatastrophe panel

Rough liveblog in progress.

Panelists: Chesya Burke (CB), John Kessel (JK), John Crowley (JC), Graham Sleight (GS), James Morrow (JM).

Tolkien defined the term. Quotation from “On Fairy Stories.”

Discussion of examples

Lord of the Rings, of course.

Endings of O Brother Where Art Thou and Magnolia.

(JC: On the table in OBWAT: Charles Fort’s Lo!)

Miracle of Morgan’s Creek

JM: I wrote a critique of the Book of Job (Blameless in Abaddon)

Does it imply a belief in god?

CB: yes…

GS: ”it implies belief in an author”

JC: Read religious story about a miracle, and notes that the trouble with this in fiction is that it’s clear that the author, not the deity, is performing the miracle.

JM: Darwin’s Idea is eucatastrophe—it seems like blood and bleakness and destruction, but in the end, it implies that everything that has ever lived is bound together and goes on and on…

JK: For Tolkien, building eucatastrophe into his stories was a reflection of what he believed to be in life—of his own spiritual reality.

JK: Flannery O’Connor—her stories purport to be (missed it—realistic? nonreligious?), but are actually eucatastrophic, as in Everything That Rises Must Converge.

CB: The eucatastrophe is always a catastrophe for someone else—the horse in LoTR, the weasels and stoats (here JC) rousted at the end of The Wind in the Willows.

JK/JC: Can atheists be moved by eucatastrophe?

JC: Yes! “The Man Who Was Thursday”—doesn’t matter that it’s explicitly an allegory, it’s still thrilling. Because things happen in stories that do not happen in real life. Atheists don’t get the eucatastrophe from Sunday mass, so it has to come from art.

GS: Isn’t that especially poignant? The feeling at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life.

JK: But it’s like drinking a lot. The end of IaWL feels like I’m right at the edge of having too much and swearing off booze.

JC: When eucatastrophe DOESN’T work, it’s the worst failure.

JK: IAWL is so over the top it’s almost a (Luis) Buñuel movie

JM: My heroine (?) is nailed to a cross and gets the vinegar on the sponge but it turns out the sponge as a drug that gives her the appearance of death. The sponge…is god. And…hol(e)y. (Groans all around.)

Question period (not taking real notes here)

JC: Secret of fiction is that causality is backward. The ends produce the causes.

JM: ”Jesus doesn’t put the slipper on her foot…”

JM: Odysseus is going to have war memories…they’re not going to go away

GS: Refuses to give you eucatastrophe: Behold the Man.

Fanfic as Literary Criticism

This weekend, I’ll be on a panel about fanfiction at Readercon. Here’s the official panel description:

Fanfic as Criticism (Only More Fun). Fanfiction is being produced online at a rate of millions of words per month. Fanfiction can expand on a shorter work, change a work’s themes, or even attempt to “fix” things the author is felt to have done “wrong” (e.g., provide a backstory to explain otherwise undermotivated behavior). These dynamics are not unheard of outside of Internet fandom communities — Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway attempts to “fix” James Joyce’s Ulysses (which itself retells Homer’s Odyssey). In what ways can fanfiction be a valuable part of the criticism of a text? Can it appeal as criticism to readers outside the fanfiction community? If so, how can they find the most interesting works?

The first of the description’s three questions is the central one, I think, and as is probably clear from the fact that I’m doing the panel, I do think fanfiction can be a valuable part of the criticism of the text. Valuable to whom, and in what ways are trickier questions, but let’s start with the basics.

What Is It?

I’m not very interested in taxonomic disputes, but for the purposes of this post and the upcoming panel, here’s my take.

Fanfiction is a subset of a larger group of artistic responses to works of art—a group that includes such works as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Wide Sargasso Sea, Finn, and Night of the Day of the Dawn of the Son of the Bride of the Return of the Revenge of the Terror of the Attack of the Evil, Mutant, Alien, Flesh Eating, Hellbound, Zombified Living Dead Part 2: In Shocking 2-D.[1. I'm open to other definitions of fanfiction except for the one that recapitulates a common conversation about SF: "If it's good, it's not fanfiction." AKA "Frankenstein isn't science fiction, it's literature" or "I'm Margaret Atwood and it's not SF because I say so." This dumb little hopping dance lets readers whose investment in mainstream-as-good makes it impossible for them to consider seriously the virtues of non-mainstream lit define genre fiction as bad by eliminating its founding texts and best examples. Finn and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Wide Sargasso Sea work in exactly the same ways as fanfiction, and the fact that they're really quite good doesn't make them a different species—it just makes them some of the best examples of the form. (They're all based on public domain source texts, of course, because most serious writers aren't going to set aside a few years to write a novel or play based on a source text that's still in copyright, because they couldn't then sell the resulting work.)]

Fanfiction also:

  • comes with its own subcultural connotations, expectations, and contexts that affect the reactions of those who read and think about it.
  • is generally written by adolescent girls and adult women who aren’t professional writers.
  • exists in a grey area of copyright law, and is thus typically published online.
  • includes several highly visible subgenres that center on romantic and sexual relationships, queer and otherwise.

It’s possible to consider fanfiction as a separate phenomenon from the larger body of art that responds to and criticizes other works of art. It’s also possible to consider the responsive and critical functions of fanfiction within the larger body of work, rather than as a separate category of literary production. Both perspectives are interesting, but that it’s important to be clear which one is under consideration at any given point.

In any case, fanfiction, even narrowly defined, encompasses forms that go well beyond pastiche or simple “missing scenes” stories. Many “alternate universe” stories maintain some features of the source text while introducing new settings, characters, plots, and themes. These range from stories in which most of the source text’s characteristics are maintained to those in which almost none of them are. An example of the latter might include a story about two adults in a nonmagical world who interact in ways that have nothing to do with the source text’s plot or themes, but who are nevertheless intended to be read as shadows or echoes of characters from the Harry Potter series. Or Lust Over Pendle, which is the first of a series of very funny golden age detective novels and short stories in which some of Rowling’s characters co-exist with many others. Or “Corridors of Power: Being An Originally Intermittent Account of the Political (Mis)Adventures of the Viscount Northallerton, Lord Malfoy of Wimbledon; and the Rt. Honourable Harry J. Potter, Member of Parliament for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Liberal Democrat).

Other stories exhaustively develop characters or subplots that are only briefly alluded to in the source text. “Dust is Gonna Settle,” for example, is a short story about a couple of brilliant people who happen to meet at Los Alamos in 1945. Nothing in the story itself suggests that it’s fanfiction, and the characters are developed from scratch, but the details gain additional resonance if you know it’s intended to depict the meeting of Tony Stark’s parents (that’s Iron Man for you non-comics-readers, bless your hearts). And then you have crossover fiction in which you have, for example, Sherlock Holmes appearing in a Dracula story, or Hermione Granger as a vampire slayer.

What’s It Do?

A few propositions:

  • Most fanfic, like most of everything else created by human hands, is terrible. Bad fan stories are interesting to me for social and cultural reasons, but not really for literary ones.
  • Some fanfiction is beautifully written, but doesn’t function as literary criticism.
  • Some fanfiction accomplishes a great deal of critical work. Of this subcategory, some are clumsily written and characterized, while others are quite good.

Here’s an example: In the Harry Potter books, a Slytherin character named Gavin Montague bothers “good” characters Fred and George Weasley, and they shove him into a vanishing cabinet, which is a device that will later be involved in a major plot point. Montague shows up some weeks later, trapped inside a toilet, having been zapped around through physical space all that time, and he’s so psychologically traumatized that he’s considered mad and sent home. And none of the “good” characters involved are punished, or even found out. Moreover, readers only see the world from the good characters’ perspective.

But there’s a story on Livejournal about Montague losing his shit in terrifying ways and making a sort of military/sexual alliance with Draco Malfoy to get his revenge. So that’s a great example of a story doing things that are clearly critical, questioning the ethical framework of the book’s world and depicting the disintegration of an adolescent’s personality while also providing interested slash readers with an erotic charge re: the sexual relationship and suggesting a whole new alternate future for the series’ plot.

The story’s prose isn’t particularly refined or subtle, but it has the potential to change the way in which readers approach the source text, and perhaps make them more likely to question some of its moral assumptions and so on. (It won’t be read by people who are uncomfortable with slash, and the story’s author and fans are fine with that.)

Range of Motion

Plenty of fanfiction doesn’t function as criticism in any way that I can spot, but some of it does. And when it does, it can:

  • raise all sorts of interesting questions about a source text’s underlying assumptions (moral, sexual, etc.),
  • criticize plot or character developments that don’t seem to have been properly introduced and grounded (importantly, this is not limited to tacking on happy endings — it’s often quite the reverse),
  • complicate characters in interesting ways by carving out backstories that make their behavior in the source text more interesting, or explain oddities,
  • retell a source text’s story for a new audience (Harry Potter with sex and drugs in, “Snow White” as an echo of the Persephone myth, just about anything as pornography),
  • reveal new aspects of a work by isolating certain of its elements and examining them in a different context (AU, crossover),
  • reveal thematic or plot connections between two disparate works, and
  • train readers to think about authorial choices in more active ways.

I tend to think that that last one’s especially important.

Notes

Life and Books

Most of my blogging is happening at the revamped Incisive.nu because my brain’s been on a publishing/content tear since before I went to SXSW in Austin earlier this month. Right now, I’m whipping through some strenuous content work stuff to make space to get back to thesis writing. Once I switch gears, things will pick up a bit here. Also on the horizon: Japan. I’ll be somewhere between Tokyo and Noheji for the end of April and the beginning of May.

Anyway, books.

I’ve fooled our ridiculous capitalist licensing overlords into letting me read The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, which isn’t out here for another month but has been out in Europe since last fall. It’s making me sad because so far it’s the best of Larsson’s three books, and it’s deeply engaged with investigative journalism, and I’m crushed that he died three books into his ten-book series. I saw the first two movies in the series last week (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is in theaters, while The Girl Who Played with Fire is technically unavailable here), and was impressed by their faithfulness to the books’ spirit. The only things they really missed are Salander’s math in the second book and the endless and intensely comforting parade of delicious-sounding sandwiches that characterize all three books. I’m also slowly reading A Perfect Spy (Le Carre) and it’s schooling me, as his books always do.

On the trip to Austin and back, I found myself bookless in two airports before longish flights and panic-bought A Reliable Wife and The Somnambulist in print and The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death on my phone. A Reliable Wife was readable, if not actually good, and TMAoEASoD was kind of great without making me want to jump out a window like the last few of Huston’s. I haven’t been able to get through The Somnambulist, which is fussy and uses a lot of the detestable “Like some ___” construction. Direct quotes: “like some maleficent vision,” “like some animate portcullis,” “like some latter-day Buddha,” “like some shattered beast,” “like some landlocked Pharos,” “like some especially ferocious javelin-thrower…”

Yeah.

In better news, Friend Bobert dropped off a truckload of comics over the weekend and I read The Cleaners, which is best trade I’ve read since the first arc of Scalped; Hard Time, which would have been better if an editor had blown up the ludicrous setup sequence; and the first Unknown Soldier, which made me feel like jumping out a window. Oh, and I finally read Westerfeld’s Leviathan, which is perfectly paced, beautifully illustrated, and incredibly fun.

Oh, and I broke down and signed up for Tumblr, so if you do that, I’m here, but it’s all work stuff.

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/4929705-a-reliable-wife

On the Subject of Alliances

Three points:

  1. I’m a white girl. I grew up with all the privilege that entails in the US—privilege it took me years to even start to get my head around. And that’s a task I don’t ever expect to be done with.
  2. Though I’m not quite sure how it happened, given my family’s conservative, anti-feminist politics, I identified as a feminist starting in junior high. It seemed…obvious. I believe women deserve the right to things like suffrage, equal pay, and not being brutalized. Ergo, feminist. It’s something I’ve never felt remotely conflicted about. Which is another marker of white privilege, because…
  3. Feminism, as a movement, has a big long history of race fail. I don’t think it has to be like that forever, but the only way to fix it is for those of us who identify as feminists and also acknowledge this history—and this ongoing problem—to stand up and holler. And frankly, black and asian and hispanic women have been forced to do a disproportionate amount of said hollering.

So let me be clear.

These women and these women and these women represent the feminism I believe in. These women, who are displaying the usual symptoms of unexamined racial privilege, most definitely do not.

Go Ask Alice

So, I’m not writing this post for sympathy. It’s late winter. Just about everyone’s sick. I’m writing it because I just looked at the palmful of multicolored pills I was about to swallow and cracked up. That may be the drugs talking.

Anyway, I’ve had a chest cold/respiratory infection/bronchitis for nearly three weeks, and it’s still kicking, but I’m mostly functional thanks to a daily intake of:

  • Sudafed (the real kind) × 10
  • Benadryl × 8
  • Zyrtec 24 hr × 1
  • Lung tonic × 4
  • the 9 supplements I take so I don’t have to use asthma inhalers when I’m not sick
  • beclomethasone inhaler × 2
  • albuterol inhaler × 2-4
  • 6-8 Ricolas
  • 10-12 pints of water
  • some coffee (not very much)

I’ve had bronchitis about once a year since I was three, and this regimen is making the bronchitis about 4,000 times more endurable than it’s ever been, because drying my hypersensitive sinuses out keeps the dreaded tickle from keeping me up all night every night. That said, said regimen’s effects on my short-term memory and ability to concentrate have resembled a cross between Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Cocoon. If I owe you an email or something, please remind me, because I’m at the point where I’m considering labeling all the objects in my apartment so that I can remember nouns again.

This Is (Still) Nice

Bewick’s Birds

In the first chapter of Jane Eyre, Jane reads a book called A History of British Birds. The book is important to the text in a few ways—it introduces a number of Gothic elements to the text in a tricksy way, slipping the arctic shipwrecks and bedeviled criminals in under cover of an apparently innocent ornithological subject, and of course, it’s also the book that the wicked John Reed wings at Jane’s head, making her bleed and provoking the terrifying experience of the red room.

I returned to my book—Bewick’s History of British Birds: the letterpress thereof I cared little for, generally speaking; and yet there were certain introductory pages that, child as I was, I could not pass quite as a blank.  They were those which treat of the haunts of sea-fowl; of “the solitary rocks and promontories” by them only inhabited; of the coast of Norway, studded with isles from its southern extremity, the Lindeness, or Naze, to the North Cape . . . .

Of these death-white realms I formed an idea of my own: shadowy, like all the half-comprehended notions that float dim through children’s brains, but strangely impressive.  The words in these introductory pages connected themselves with the succeeding vignettes, and gave significance to the rock standing up alone in a sea of billow and spray; to the broken boat stranded on a desolate coast; to the cold and ghastly moon glancing through bars of cloud at a wreck just sinking. . . .

With Bewick on my knee, I was then happy: happy at least in my way.

Turns out, both volumes of Bewick’s are available via Google Books (volume one, volume two). And oh man, are the illustrations bizarre. Here’s what Jane was looking at, crammed in at the ends of pages to fill up space.

A Wonderful FISH

A model for the post-fire Thornfield Hall?

Random guy in the river

….and here’s my favorite, the disembodied, tourniqueted lobster claw of artistry:

I'ma paint-choo

Charles Dickens, or someone writing for him in All the Year Round, also found Bewick’s engavings interesting (scroll down half a page), though he doesn’t really know what to make of the WONDERFUL FISH either.

Google Buzz Screws Up

There are plenty of valid reasons for not wanting your online activity and information to be packaged up for anyone who wishes to “follow” you. Many people who use one or more of Google’s services never intended for, say, their Google Reader information to be connected to their e-mail addresses. Some of them need to keep that information unlinked so that, for example, abusive ex-husbands and threatening strangers can’t find new ways to torment them.

It’s easy to believe that open access to personal information is mostly harmless, and that stalkers only harass drama queens and women who “put themselves” in dangerous relationships offline. It may be especially easy to believe this if your worst communication experiences online have involved flamewars and nasty emails.

Here’s the thing. I’m using Google Buzz, albeit carefully and tentatively, but a year ago, I wouldn’t have been doing so.

For a long time, I kept my online identities as fragmented as possible to make it harder for strangers (or the wrong acquaintances) to physically find me in non-public venues, or to see what I was posting under other names. Why? Because when I was an undergraduate ten years ago, two men with whom I did not want contact found me—found my dorm and room number and supposedly private unlisted telephone number. This information was “confidential,” but that didn’t keep me from getting surprise calls late at night, including one from an unstable young man I had known briefly in high school who happened to believe that I was causing him to be spiritually attacked by demons, and who now knew exactly where I lived.

Those calls—demonstrations that people who did not have my best interest in mind wanted and could easily obtain my personal information—shaped my online habits.

About a year ago, I realized that by speaking at various conferences, I had already left a trail for anyone who cared to bother me. So I stopped asking people to remove my last name from the captions of photos posted online. I let my anonymous accounts drift toward my identifiable ones. I started to publicly talk about travel plans. The fact that I’m approaching my mid-thirties and have been in a committed relationship for ten years has shielded me from a lot of random harassment, but I remember what it felt like to be so vulnerable.

It’s unconscionable for Google to connect up disparate accounts and circles of online activity that happen to be associated with a Gmail address by default. It is even less acceptable that they have provided such inadequate ways of opting out, aside of deleting all information associated with any Google product or service or any product or service they eventually acquire. But most Gmail users won’t object, because they’re used to having their privacy treated as a non-issue by the companies with whom they trust their information. Nevertheless, it’s wrong. And for some people, especially for young women, sexual and ethnic minorities, activists, and anyone engaged in controversial communication online, it’s dangerous.

Reading for Research

The difference between reading for pleasure and garden-variety academic reading is the difference between visiting the paintings you love in a museum and spending time with paintings you don’t immediately respond to because you want to understand what kind of paintings they really are, and how they work.

The difference between reading for pleasure and reading for intensive academic research is the difference between buying a beautiful piece of art for your home and meticulously going through a giant patch of dirt divided into little squares by lines of string and painstakingly unearthing broken bits of pottery. If you’re a researcher, you don’t dig up a shard of a cooking pot and make a face because it’s jagged on one side or it doesn’t really appeal to your sensibilities. You brush it off with a special brush and bag it up with custom-made padding and carefully tag the bag and thank your archeological saints that you found it at all because what are the odds of that, and then you use it to reconstruct a piece of a lost world.

All these ways of reading are useful and good. But it’s important to know which you’re trying to do, lest you wander haplessly into a dig and be unexpectedly set upon by sweaty archeologists with mud on their trousers and a deranged gleam in their eyes.