What’s Your Pronoun? by Dennis Baron

This is turning into a month of listening, for me.

After the controversy erupted over J.K. Rowling’s statements on trans people, I realized how little I actually know about that side of human experience. Where did these new pronouns come from? What’s the difference between transsexual (which has been around since I was a kid) and transgender? Why nonbinary?

So I decided to start with digging into pronouns. Because a) I’m a grammar nerd, and b) Getting more comfortable using new or different pronouns is a concrete action I can take, right now.

And I’m glad I did! This book is a delight, a quick read that doesn’t skimp on the details.

For example, I had no idea of the controversy over generic he that raged in the US and UK over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Suffragettes like Susan B Anthony argued that if he covered women when it came to paying taxes and being arrested for crimes, then it covered them when it came to voting, too.

This passage, in particular, struck me as completely bad-ass:

If, for instance, in a penal law there are no feminine pronouns, women should be exempt from the penalties imposed. And if men are to represent woman in voting, let them represent her in all. If a wife commits murder let the husband be hung for it.

She (and suffragettes throughout the nineteenth century) lost that argument, and the argument that the fourteenth amendment covered women, since it used not he but persons and citizens.

Which is why the current discussion over the ERA — where detractors insist the fourteenth amendment already covers women — is so specious. There’s hundreds of years of American jurisprudence that says otherwise. We absolutely need an explicit amendment that grants women full and equal rights.

As even this one example, shows, arguments over pronouns go back a long way.

Calls for a new “gender-neutral” pronoun go back three hundred years (!).

Use of the singular they in just that manner go back seven-hundred years! It was never accepted by grammarians, but it was used in print and daily speech all the time.

Baron traces all of this history — the legalities of the generic he, the rise of new pronouns, etc — and links it together, showing how the current debates about pronouns and trans rights echo debates we’ve had down the centuries. Every time, the side of “existing usage” is really on the side of weaponizing grammar to suppress certain populations.

That’s a side I don’t want to be on.

If you’re at all curious about where the “new” pronouns have come from, and why using the right pronouns is so important, I highly encourage you to read this book.

Or if you’re already onboard with explicitly asking for people’s pronouns (and sharing your own), and just like language, I’d still recommend it, as a fantastic and informative read.

So: What’s your pronoun? I’m he/him/his 🙂

Midlife, by Kieran Setiya

Picked this one up during my last trip through Boston. I’m inching closer and closer to forty, so it seems like a good time to take stock of what I’ve accomplished so far in my life (not much, really) and where I might want to go from here.

I’d hoped this book would help with that, or at least with countering any fears or anxieties I experience as I enter middle age.

Unfortunately, it’s a mostly disappointing book.

An Audience of One

Part of that is due to a flaw he admits right up front: it’s a book he wrote for himself. Someone who’s entered middle age as one of the professional classes, with a stable job, a stable home life, and good health. And not just any job, but the job he set out to get in his twenties. So he comes at middle age from the perspective of someone who’s already achieved the things they wanted out of life.

The book suffers for it. For how many of us set out to do one thing in our youth, only to end up somewhere entirely different? Or enter middle age with our bodies broken, or our minds? Do we have nothing to learn from philosophy?

Abandoning Reason

The second flaw follows directly from the first: he discusses arguments for dealing with certain aspects of middle age, such as the fear of death, but dismisses anything that doesn’t feel right for him. Abandoning reason, he moves from philosophy to pop psychology, deciding that what gives him the most comfort must be the best.

Never mind that what might comfort him would be appalling to someone else. Or that comfort might have little to do with the truth.

Paths Not Taken

And so he glosses over the insights embedded in the not-self dogma of Buddhism. Skips right over the most reasonable argument for not fearing death. And misses a gaping hole in the middle of his whole argument.

For embedded in the heart of his book is an assumption: that philosophy is meant to help us be happy.

But what if that isn’t the case? If we take philosophy as being the study of how to live a good life, does it necessarily follow that the good life is a happy one?

I don’t think so. At the very least, I don’t think it’s something we can assume. For while it is a modern trend to conflate happiness with virtue (or perhaps merely a particularly American one), there are plenty of examples from ancient philosophy where that isn’t the case. Consider Stoicism, where virtue can only be shown in the face of adversity.

Final Words

So while Midlife claims to be a mix of philosophy and self-help, it is neither. Not philosophy, because it leaves reason behind in the pursuit of comfortable aphorisms. And not self-help, because it was written to help only one person, the author.

Frustrating at its worst, disappointing at its best, I wouldn’t recommend this book.

Writers Coffeehouse, April 2018

Another great coffeehouse! Jonathan Maberry was back for hosting duties, and kicked off two lively discussions on some recent controversies in the publishing world.

Thanks again to Mysterious Galaxy for giving us the space to meet, and to Jonathan, Henry, and the other organizers!

My Notes:

henry: finds trello is a great visual way to outline a novel, can use columns for chapters, drill in for details, etc

jonathan: no one can know everything, we all need to share so together we can find solutions to our problems

free files with sample query letters, etc are up on jonathan’s website! ready for download

discussion: diversity pushes for anthologies – what’s the right approach?

discussion: can you separate the writer from the writing? ex: lovecraft

sd writers and editors guild: henry giving talk there later this month

ralan.com: maberry’s favorite website to find markets for short stories; anthologies, etc

what’s reasonable for a developmental editor to charge?

⁃ depends on hourly or per word

⁃ seen $500 to $5,000

⁃ inexpensive but professional: $0.004 per word, developmental edit

⁃ $2,000 for 90,000-word novel: about the average for developmental and line by line

developmental vs line editor: development is high-level, looking at plot and characters, shape of the story; line editor is going line by line before final print

jim butcher has a great piece online about writing the middle

jonathan: we dismiss nonfiction writing, especially in the magazine market, but we shouldn’t; there’s always knowledge we have that other people don’t posses; even basics can be good articles, because most magazines on a topic are read by nonexperts; what sells currently in magazine context is a conversational style; pro rates: $2-$7 a word; magazines starting to be hungry again

breaking in? don’t have to be a writer to sell it, have to know the subject matter; one of his students sold an article on falling (ex: how to fall from a skateboard) to multiple markets, used it to help him work through college

write first? or pitch? jonathan: never write before you sell

everyone here has something they’re an expert in, that they probably don’t value because it’s old hat to them; “i’m just a secretary” phenomenon

basics are great: how to find a good divorce lawyer (or a web developer, sysadmin, etc)

jonathan: write an outline, pitch to multiple magazines at once (120), if make multiple sales, write different versions of the article for each magazine; get back issues, read online content to learn voice and approach; don’t have to do it that way, but even if going one at a time, be ready with their next market if get rejected

pay on publication? NOPE, always go for pay on acceptance

The Discovery of Middle Earth: Mapping the Lost World of the Celts by Graham Robb

An odd book. The author’s main thesis — that the Celts knew enough about geometry and astronomy to align their cities with the path of the sun — is convincing, once his evidence is laid out. But along the way he falls into claims that sound more like an “aliens built the pyramids” book, such as when he says all Celtic art was based on complex geometric designs.

It’s hard to fault him too much, though; the central idea is inspiring, and his excitement at getting to share it bleeds through.

Just a few of the things I learned from this book:

  • The Druids — and the Celts in general — were not illiterate, though writing down druidic knowledge was taboo. Most of their writing was done using the Greek alphabet.
  • There were several large Celtic migrations in the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE, that were apparently well-planned (Caesar relates one that was planned two years ahead of time). Many of these ended up in northern Italy; both Bologna and Milan were founded by migrating Gauls.
  • The Roman conception of Gaul’s geography was terrible. Tacitus thought Ireland was just off the coast of Spain (!). Caesar had to rely completely on local knowledge to navigate the terrain. In contrast, a Gaul from Marseille (Pytheas) circumnavigated Europe in the 320s BCE (Mediterranean to Atlantic Coast to Britain to Baltic to Black Sea back to Mediterranean), taking accurate latitude readings the whole way.

Ninety Percent of Everything by Rose George

Fascinating. Shines light on an invisible but vital industry. The author got to travel on a container ship from the UK to Singapore, and she uses each stage of the journey to dive into the history and current existence of merchant sailors, from their food to how they deal with pirates to the convoluted shell companies that own and run the ships.

Extremely well-written, and made my next visit to the Maritime Museum much more interesting, because I understood more of the context in which those ships were operating.

Three of the very many things I learned:

  • Merchant sailors are often cheated out of pay by their bosses. In 2010 alone, the International Transport Workers Federation managed to recover $30 million in back pay that was owed to seafarers.
  • The Suez Canal is only wide enough for one-way traffic, so they have to stagger the ships going through in convoys each way
  • Merchant sailors captured by pirates in the Indian Ocean are held for 250 days (!) on average

Strategy: A History by Lawrence Freedman

A rambling, overly-long book. Spends so much time digressing from his core topic — dipping into cognitive theory, the history of Standard Oil, and Greek mythology, among others — that he doesn’t find time (in 700+ pages!) to tie anything together.

The final section is the biggest offender, becoming just a parade of names and quotes with no background, no context, and no focus.

The one point he hammers on constantly is that any attempt to resolve conflicts by playing up the common interests of the parties involved is an “anti-strategy,” as he labels it. This quirky obsession puts him in some odd positions, like when he spends some time talking about the amazing Jane Addams, only to disparage her thinking on conflict by slapping the “anti-strategic” label on it. Many of the women he discusses end up dismissed in a similar fashion, making his attempts to undermine their thinking seem motivated by something other than rational thought.

Even though I felt like putting it down multiple times, I did learn a few things:

  • Chimps not only compete politically, they use coalition building within the group, and engage in raids and genocidal warfare outside the group.
  • Clausewitz is more famous today, but the most popular writer on military strategy in the 19th century was Jomini.
  • Martin Luther King wasn’t originally committed to non-violence. Only once some of Gandhi’s followers joined his organization — and after Rosa Parks’ successful boycott of buses — did he commit to nonviolence as a strategy