If You Can’t Tell People of Color From Dogs and Martians, I Can’t Help You

I did a bit of spitting and stuttering about this interview of The Coen Brothers by Jen Yamato on social media, but the more I stewed, the more I had to rant about, so I thought I’d take it to the lengthier venue of the blog.

Ignore the title of over at The Daily Beast. This is only tangentially about The Oscars. It’s far more substantively about the Coens who, after saying diversity is important, spin on their heels and dig in when questions of diversity are leveled at them (specifically, their newest film). The most egregious response comes from Joel Coen, when asked about criticism of a lack of non-white characters in Hail, Caesar!:

You don’t sit down and write a story and say, ‘I’m going to write a story that involves four black people, three Jews, and a dog,’—right? That’s not how stories get written. If you don’t understand that, you don’t understand anything about how stories get written and you don’t realize that the question you’re asking is idiotic.

I suppose I should at least be impressed by how very many ways Coen is fundamentally wrongheaded in such a short space. I mean, efficiency of language is something.

Still:

Let’s get some of the most hateful bits out of the way right here. A white, straight man is sitting around telling his Asian-American female interviewer that she’s an idiot for questioning his choices as a creator. This is such prototypical whitemansplaining that we might as well just stop using other examples. Joel Coen wins the crown.

I’ll give him some mild kudos for thinking to include “three Jews” in his hypothetical list that Writers Don’t Make. In the end, though, whether he’s throwing an ostensibly self-deprecating bone at himself or not, he still just implied that switching out white people for ethnic minorities if there isn’t A Big Reason for it is as asinine as replacing people with dogs. Aside from the fact that you’re only half a step removed from making “mongrel” comments, there, someone who claims to know “how stories get written” should probably know the difference between people and dogs. (special exceptions for writers of werewolf and anthropomorphic fiction notwithstanding). If you don’t, I’m pretty sure no one asking you questions is the one who’s an idiot.

More specific to the film in question, though, it sounds like Hail, Caesar! is exactly the kind of story which did start with a list of character concepts: The Marquee Actor, The Water Movie Starlet, The Hollywood Fixer. It’s a “day in the life” movie, after all, predicated on the notion that there are a lot of stories to tell about different Hollywood types. That kind of story by its very nature involves sitting down and thinking about which iconic character types you want to explore, what unique elements you want to bring to them (because if this is the same story we’ve already heard, why do we give a fuck?), then finding a way to weave them together.

Which is to say, if you’re already sitting down and saying we want a story with a big name star and someone from those Busby Berkely water musicals and a fresh-eyed kid and a grizzled veteran, you’re doing exactly the thing you’re pretending is idiotic: making a character list  with types of people in the real world.

Meaning that in the actual examining, it’s not idiotic at all. It’s how you craft characters. You sit down and think about who the people in your world are. Where they’re from. What they do. You give them lives and backgrounds. Different lives and backgrounds. If you didn’t, you’d have a story filled with a dozen of the same person. Which, short of that bit in Being John Malkovich, is a boring, horrible idea.

Pretending that taking a few moments in your character-building to consider the ethnic or sexual or gender or disability backgrounds of your characters as you strive for a vital, varied world that engages your audience is — at the insanely least — disingenuous.

And on the subject of four of one, three of another, etc., it’s long past time we stop pretending there’s a quota going on here. Seriously. There’s a request for storytellers to be more thoughtful about the world around them. That’s actually pretty much your job. It doesn’t help that this all comes with the infuriating implication that a movie full of white people is one where race happened naturally. Never considering if there was maybe too much White Default going on in the story is, actually, a choice.

If someone asks you “why is this movie so white?” and you have an answer which suggests it was for reasons other than being too lazy to conceive of any other configuration, fine. Whether or not it resonates, at least it means you thought about it. But when someone asks you “why is this movie so white?” and you just get dismissive and defensive, that tells me you never thought about it before.

In the end, I’m utterly exhausted by the authorial defense which insists that taking five minutes of story planning to consider that people other than the White (mostly male) Default exist in the world is some kind of egregious impediment to creativity or artistic integrity or storytelling or whatever-the-hell other stand in for The Muse happens to be word of the day.

People of all stripes exist in the real world. If you’re a storyteller, you’re building a world, too, and it is nothing short of lazy if you do not — in the course of that worldbuilding — consider the place of diverse individuals within it.

On Storytelling and Alien Perspectives

The latest episode of The Sockdolager podcast is live. Editors Paul Starr and Alison Wilgus share their insights on what they liked, loved, and noodled over for all of the stories in the Fall issue. As you may recall (and if you don’t, obviously I am un-subtly reminding you), this was the issue in which Hide Behind saw the light of published day.

Alison and Paul say a lot of the kind of complimentary stuff that makes the self-deprecating voices in my head squirm and wriggle, which is always nice. I won’t rehash all of it, because you should just go listen, but I will say I was especially happy that they made note of Yuna’s asexuality.

I did a lot of fiddling and angsting to find a way to make Yuna’s sexuality explicit without something so clunky as “As an asexual, Yuna…” in the narration or, worse, giving someone horrible “You see, Yuna, since you’re asexual…” dialogue. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh.

In editing, we never actually discussed any of the characters’ sexuality, though, so I’ll admit part of me wondered, but: it reads. Huzzah!

The other interesting bit I wanted to highlight is a discussion Paul and Alison have about whether or not this story takes place on Earth. Which never occurred to me, though I suppose it should have: while I was shopping this story around, a fantasy-only market I subbed it to rejected it explicitly because they thought it was too sci-fi for them.

Here’s the thing: in my head, “Hide Behind” takes place on an alt-history Earth filled with folklore come to life. However, I also have the benefit of having read the other stories I’ve set in this world. Only, one of those was published in an anthology that I’m not sure has got a lot of attention, one is forthcoming and thus isn’t in very many hands, either, and the others are either out on sub or aren’t even finished yet.

Stripped of other-story context, it makes sense. Most of the other stories lean a lot more heavily into the folklore and magic aspects. Yuna and Ruthie’s story, though, is probably the lowest on magic of any of the Tall stories. Which is intentional. I very much wanted to explore the nature of medicine and science in a world populated by so much fantastic, magical stuff. How do you navigate that, I wondered?

As a result, the mystical nature of the world gets a whole lot more grounding. When you actually start dissecting a giant and performing botanical grafts of trees with healing fruit, things become less magical and more alien.

Which, honestly, is its own kind of cool. “Hide Behind” is a story about characters who are alienated in a lot of ways, after all. Given one of my intentions with the Tall stories is to create works that can stand on their own (I’ve not sold more than one of them to the same market), but which can also provide a different experience for folks who have read more than one, this actually feels like proof of concept.

Also: I blame Firefly. ;)

Requisite Awards Eligibility Post

To be honest, this post is as much me attempting to flip off my Impostor Syndrome as anything else, so *obscene gesture inside my brain*.

Alrighty then, let’s get to it:

Given that I’ve only ramped up writing and submitting in the last year and change, there’s really not a lot of distinction I need to make here from my full bibliography. Right now the latter is organized in reverse chronological order, since it makes sense to me to highlight my most recent sales first, but it’s not like anyone needs to do heavy scrolling to find the 2015 pubs.

Also, if it matters, this is my first year of eligibility for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. I understand that largely falls on the shoulders of novelists, but hey, don’t self-reject, right?

All my pubs this year are in the Short Story (<7,500 words) category. If there's a link, it's because the story is free to read online, so have at if you didn't before:

  • “Broken” (on Escape Pod #509) November 2015
  • “Hide Behind” (in The Sockdolager #3) September 2015
  • “At Her Fingertips” (in Betwixt #7) April 2015
  • “Tall” (in Twice Upon A Time (Bearded Scribe Press)) January 2015
  • “Detritus” (in Sci Phi Journal #3) January 2015
  • The Title Applies to Everyone

    I couldn’t start this post.

    No, really. I’ve deleted at least a dozen versions of it, because all of them seem pedantic, or back-patting, or entitled. That I’m going to get this horribly, insultingly wrong.

    This isn’t entirely new. I get semi-regularly stuck on things when they aren’t exactly right. I latch onto something, and whether I want to or not, I can’t push through it or get around it. My mental wheels spin, and I’m screaming inside because there is no earthly reason why this should be so incredibly difficult. What. The Hell. Is wrong with me?

    Appropriately enough, I was in one of those places when I finally sat down and started “Broken.” Sy’s initial thoughts, his cavalier declarations that his head is broken, were a hyperbolic bit of channeling.

    That’s the thing about mental illness and developmental disorders which I find most … compelling is the wrong word; it casts people living very real challenges as some kind of exoticized zoo exhibit. Terrifying is just as wrong for similar reasons: while I suppose some people may indeed be monsters, I don’t think the people struggling to make it through the day qualify.

    So there isn’t a good word for it, which I suppose is also appropriate. Regardless, one of the things at the heart of Sy’s story is the realization that something inside isn’t “normal,” and that, further, knowing this doesn’t necessarily allow him to change that thing inside. If it were that easy, I’m not sure how many of us wouldn’t just flip that magical switch.

    Even outside the world of science fiction, there’s a false equivalence drawn between self-awareness and self-actualization. If we know what the problem is, then why the heck can’t we fix it by deciding not to give it audience? In a world where science works what we might think of as miracles, it’s even more tempting to allow for a quick fix.

    Of course, the very notion of normal is especially troubling and problematic on the asteroid colonies collectively known as The Rim. There, every single person exists with a twisted genetic code thanks to the inheritable plague that is The Skew. What the hell does normal even mean in that context? But if everyone is telling you it means not who you are, what does that mean for you?

    Inside, after all, is us. If you change yourself, do you change your self? What do you give up to be “better,” to be “normal”?

    What if the answer is too much?

    It’s Been a While (Story News)

    Longer nattering later, but in an effort to take advantage of the date of debut: news! I have a story live today over at Escape Pod! Huzzah!

    My favorite part about skimming is that I’m not broken when I do it. It doesn’t matter that I don’t have levels, that I’m on or off, because that’s how everything’s supposed to be when you’re in the hypernet. Even if I’m not supposed to be in the hypernet.

    “Broken” is another story of The Rim. Like “Detritus” and “At Her Fingertips,” this one stands on its own, though you’ll likely begin seeing patterns if you’ve read the other two.

    This is a slightly quieter story than the previous two, I think, though it’s filled with its own kind of chaos. Sy is a young man possessed of extraordinary talents and equally extraordinary challenges. As usual, I’ll likely have more to say in a few days, but for now, I’ll boil it down like I did for ye newe Twitter: hacked genes, hacked code, hacked minds, and shredded hearts.

    You can read it in text or listen to audio at the above link, or you can download to your favorite podcast app and listen to it that way.

    Secrets and Meddling and Science Gone Right

    I promised something more substantial about Hide Behind, didn’t I? I should get to that. I’ll avoid major spoilers, but if you want to read the story completely cold, I’d suggest clicking the link above first and doing so. You can always come back.

    Everyone good going forward? Excellent.

    Given this is in part a story about secrets, how about I start with one? It may not be an especially well-hidden one, but here goes: before around August of last year, it had been a decade plus since I’d written much of any new fiction. There were occasional dalliances, mind, but nothing sustained.

    Due to my previous fits without much start, going into this latest attempt I decided to try to give myself a slight leg up. Laura had been having success writing several stories which shared a world in her Teachout stories. Success both in that she was pubbing the stories and that I was digging on them.

    Worldbuilding is exciting, but it can also be exhausting. Personally, I can get a bit lost in the background research and brainstorming and burn myself out before I get to the actual story. I thought doing something similar to Laura might leave me with energy to write more. I took a look at those few stories I had which I liked, and fiddled about thinking about which ones might have enough worldbuilding lying about that I could further explore.

    I found two, one of which was Tall. I’d peppered Elsie’s story with a lot of background material, most of which I hadn’t dug in deep with. So I made a short list of the biggest bits of background and set about noodling them for story.

    One of those bits are the Seeders (colloquially known as “tinpots”), a heretofore unseen movement peopled by folks planting fruit trees where they have no earthly right to grow, and who apparently only ask in return that folks who partake of the fruit throw the seeds to the wind to continue the process.

    I knew I wanted a scientist to be butting up against the secrets of a Seeder tree. Figuring out how and in what ways science works in a world with literal magic is just too much fun to pass up, after all.

    It started with one scientist, frontier doctor Yuna, but Ruthie, a botanist, showed up pretty quickly after, and I might have smiled a bit. Intrepid lady scientists versus mysterious magic! What’s not to love about that?

    The pair of them diligently worked to unlock the secrets of Seeder magic, all the while facing off against some very strong resistance by locals who thought science had no place meddling with something like the pseudo-religious work of the tinpots.

    And then people started dying, because if there’s one mortal enemy of a doctor, it has to be unexplained deaths, yes? Worse, what if the explanation was that aforementioned meddling?

    I promised no spoilers, so that’s all the further I’ll go, but yeah: “Hide Behind” is a story about science and meddling and faith and friendship and what we know and what we think we know.

    With magic trees and the autopsy of a giant.

    Woman Problems

    It’s been an unfortunate couple days for me as far as the depictions of women in my SFF television consumption. Not all of it surprising, mind. I’m human. I will probably always like problematic things. That doesn’t make it less disappointing.

    Spoilers for the season finales of Fear the Walking Dead and The Strain, as well as a pretty late-season reveal in Dark Matter. You’ve been warned.

    Regressive sexual politics in the Walking Dead franchise aren’t exactly new to me. Laurie Holden’s Andrea was constantly berated for not sticking around to do what amounted to housework while the men used the guns, for goodness’ sake. But after killing off all but one of the original female characters, oddly enough, the parent franchise seems at least mildly better with women going forward.

    It was especially disappointing, then, that prequel / spinoff series Fear the Walking Dead fell right back into the same hole. For a while, I could squint and make it work:

    Yes, Madison (Kim Dickens) has more experience directly working with troubled people as a guidance counselor than her boyfriend Travis (Cliff Curtis), but the hyper-macho military commander would never pick a woman to liaise with civilians.1

    But the further the show went, the clearer it became that the primary characters who were meant to be learning and growing were the men. And over and over again, the lessons they learn are taught to them by hurting the women they care about.

    Travis in particular seems to have a lot of “don’t touch my stuff” motivations. He has to learn that sympathy leads to pain and suffering, by having a young woman shot when he lets a soldier live. It’s that event which finally spurs his rage and fury and beating-people’s-heads-in.

    And, of course, when his ex-wife Liza (Elizabeth Rodriguez) winds up with a zombie bite, guess who, after being completely incapable of shooting a full-on zombie previously, has to pull the trigger while she’s still fully human to keep her from turning?

    As Travis collapses on the beach, the ocean washing over him and his more-competent-in-this-world girlfriend clinging to his side, it comes clear that the women in this show exist in service to the character arcs of the men.

    But if Fear wound up a disappointment for backsliding, The Strain has been doubling down on the “don’t touch my stuff” plots.

    In the first season, Cory Stoll’s Ephram is subject to round one, where his ex-wife (Natalie Brown) is turned in a bid to manipulate him. This season, antagonist Palmer (Jonathan Hyde) is similarly punished by having his assistant / lover turned after he and she make a bid for more control. And for extra redundancy, Ephram’s current love interest, Nora (Mia Maestro) is also killed — by that vampire ex-wife.

    And that’s not even looking in the direction of the nearly-realized tentacle rape of the show’s other female protagonist (Ruta Gedmintas) in a bid to motivate her boyfriend and / or send her running off screen and out of the narrative.

    My response to all that is probably best summed up on Twitter:

    The only bright side to this is that such overt, tone-deaf writing is easy to spot and easier to dismiss. Slightly more insidious was a recent turn near the end of Dark Matter, a new SyFy series I’ve been binging via Netflix.

    By and large, there’s a reasonable spread of capable women on the show. I had a minor kneejerk when I realized how often “away mission” stuff involved the guys while the women stayed on board, but it seemed pretty clear that had more to do with the men being expendable than valuable.

    This is especially true of Melissa O’Neil’s Two (The conceit of the show is that the characters are named for the order they woke up from stasis, as they have no memory of life before), who takes instant leadership, facing only token resistance from spoiler Three (Anthony Lemke). She’s just as kick-ass a fighter as “sword guy” Four (Alex Mallari, Jr.), as good a shot as “gun guy” Three, and as capable a pilot as Six (Roger R. Cross, refreshingly getting to play someone who isn’t eternally dour).

    Then, late in the season, we discover Two’s abilities come from Macguffin tech: she’s a manufactured human being. To be sure, this lets her be even more kick ass. But it also means two out of three of the very capable women in this crew (the other is Zoie Palmer’s Android) are artificial beings. The men get to kick ass because they kick ass. The women kick ass because they were Built That Way.

    On the one hand, so far all the women here are alive. I mean, your female characters can’t accomplish anything if they’re already dead just to motivate your men. On the other, the narrative being (I can’t avoid this pun) constructed here doesn’t exactly lend itself to inherent female capability and agency, either. The metaphorical takeaway from having women be your embodiment of the “I’m more than what I was born as” themes certainly doesn’t help matters.

    1. If I’m choosing, I want to spend extra time with Cliff Curtis, too, though my motivations are a bit more prurient. ;)