Thursday, September 13, 2007

An abundance of commas

Today's words that are not the same:


Today's punctuation marks that are not the same:


Today's words that are not words:


Spellcheck is not by any means a replacement for editing (as the first entry in this post makes clear), but there's a lot to be said for using it to at least give things a once-over and draw your eye to typos. And seriously, what is it with the commas? There are many punctuation marks that can be used to conclude sentences, but commas are not on the list.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A good man, Truman Capote

Ha! Truman Capote backs me up:
Most of all, I believe in hardening yourself against opinion. I’ve had, and continue to receive, my full share of abuse, some of it extremely personal, but it doesn’t faze me any more. I can read the most outrageous libel about myself and never skip a pulse-beat. And in this connection there is one piece of advice I strongly urge: Never demean yourself by talking back to a critic, never. Write those letters to the editor in your head, but don’t put them on paper.
Obviously this doesn't apply to needing to correct a factual error, but for any other circumstance where a writer wants to argue with a review of their writing, I'd say it's spot-on.

I do somewhat disagree with the rest of what he had to say, as I've had authors thank me for my criticism after the fact and tell me they'd keep it in mind for future efforts (usually about general things like "Why are all the female characters in all your books little more than plot points?" rather than specific issues with a particular work) and I don't think I'm one of the more perceptive, eloquent, or knowledgeable reviewers out there. I agree, though, that a lot of what passes for reviewing is little more than "prissy carpings and condescensions". Another recent post at Critical Mass suggested limiting reviews to 1000 or even (shock!) 800 words, because if we have to read blowhards, at least then we wouldn't have to read them at length. I skimmed that post because it was too long and the author sounded like a blowhard, which is to say I agree with his thesis, if not his defense. Even better, let's fire the blowhards--the only people that Critical Mass has yet to blame for the recent demise of several newspaper review sections are the reviewers themselves, which I think is a grievous oversight--and hire people who write thoughtful reviews and know how to express themselves succinctly and with grace.

At any rate, props to Capote's interviewer for asking directly whether reviews are useful. It's a good question and I think it should always be kept in mind when reviewing.

(Incidentally, I didn't know "faze" was in use in 1957. I take this opportunity to thumb my nose at anyone who spells it "phase".)

Monday, September 10, 2007

Around the globe

Hm, been a while since I complained about work*. Time to fix that!

Today's word that is only technically a word and not actually fit for human consumption:


Amazingly enough, Word's spellcheck didn't flag "bestriding". I guess it's not actually wrong, just remarkably awkward.

I changed it to "globe-straddling" for now. The whole sentence will likely be rewritten once I finish my first pass (error correction) and start on the second (condensing for word count).

* Actually, I'm not complaining about work. I'm complaining about the ridiculous things people put in their writing. I love my work because it means I can keep some of those ridiculous things from ever seeing the light of day.

EDIT: Yep, took it out altogether. I feel better now.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Is there a logic course that one of us could enroll in?

I've been following the debate over the cover of the new anthology coming out from Night Shade, but I haven't said much. It's a big topic and there's a lot to think about.

A lot of the problems I see in the ensuing debate are problems of language, and of familiarity with the situation. The people who are used to writing and reading blog entries about racism and sexism start out weary. They've seen it all before. They have their bingo cards ready. The people who are not used to online discussion of these issues have no idea that the phrases that come to mind as perfectly reasonable responses are not only unoriginal but also rife with unintentional prejudice. The experienced -ism bloggers are outraged (understandably) and say "You should know better!" and the inexperienced ones feel insulted (understandably) and blow their tops, lather rinse repeat. It is all very predictable, like watching two people play chess when one is an old hand who can see several moves ahead and the other learned yesterday and is still trying to remember which way the knight moves. Being able to beat someone at chess under those circumstances says nothing about skill or intelligence or righteousness. It's just about training. Using that training to grind someone into the dirt is, shall we say, less than sportsmanlike.

This is escalated in the SF community, because we all know one another personally, and as hard as it is to critique someone's behavior when you don't have a personal connection, it's much harder when there's history between you, whether friendship or rivalry or mutual dislike. The worst thing that can happen in this kind of discussion is for someone to make it personal--whether by taking critique of behavior to equal critique of self or by turning critique into insult and ad hominem attack or even, in many cases, by saying "I'm telling you this as someone who cares about you"--and with this set-up it's pretty much inevitable.

I don't think efforts to uproot entrenched -isms are doomed to fail, but I do think all these factors need to be taken into consideration if conversations on these topics are going to be productive. I'm serious about phrasing critique as a response to a manuscript submission; it puts it in a familiar framework that in our community specifically indicates a critique of product rather than a critique of person, and there's plenty of room for personal nuance ("It's a fine story, but it just didn't grab me") and indicating where further discussion might occur ("I'd be happy to see other submissions from you/look this over after extensive revision"). It also makes the power relationship clear. Just as editors get to accept or reject manuscripts, consumers get to accept or reject finished books. While someone receiving multiple rejections would be perfectly within their rights to say that their unique artistic vision cannot be compromised by the sneers of the ignorant, they might also start considering whether perhaps some revisions are in order.

As for the specific topic at hand, my opinion is divided. On the one hand, Maureen McHugh's name on a cover excites me as a reader far more than Bruce Sterling's. On the other hand, when I'm urging my boss at PW to send a small press anthology out for review, I point to big names in the table of contents as evidence that it's likely worth paying attention to. (PW has no policy against reviewing terrible books and calling them out as terrible, but we do unofficially prefer to review good books rather than bad ones if we're given the choice.) On the gripping hand, the consumer side is what pays attention to the cover and the reviewer side is what looks at the TOC. Covers are meant to appeal to consumers. Maybe there's even market research out there showing that consumers prefer anthology covers with no more than five names on them, though I kind of doubt it.

So I think the cover should have six names on it: four big-name authors, two lesser-known authors with small but dedicated followings. I think that accurately reflects the TOC, and I suspect the gender split among those names would also be representative. I'm no fan of quotas or tokenism and wouldn't presume to suggest what the gender split should be, but if it's not reflective of the TOC, I'd see that as a flag of possible unconscious bias that might be worth consciously correcting. I was a little shocked to see comments from the folks at Night Shade that seemed to amount to "We don't intend the front cover to be representative of the book". That sounds to me like a betrayal of the reader's trust that can only reflect negatively on the publisher. People who pick up an anthology promoted by five male BNA names may not want an anthology with a TOC like Eclipse's. Why not promote it as the well-balanced book that it apparently is? If the idea is to hitch all those other authors to the BNA coattails, to subversively get their names and work in front of readers who would otherwise pass them by... honestly, that seems a little insulting to both the authors and the reader. Truth in advertising seems to me a pretty laudable goal here. If Night Shade's business model depends on deceiving readers, I think that's a problem with their business model, not a problem with the market.

Does the market need to be changed? That's not clear to me. A big part of the issue in the case of Eclipse was that all the BNAs in it happened to be men, or perhaps that all the women in it happened to not be BNAs. That's one anthology. That doesn't mean that all BNAs are male, or that all male writers are BNAs. It may well be that fewer women are offered the big advances or get the big sales numbers or have the household name recognition or get first novel contracts or appear in small press anthologies or however you want to quantify success and achievement in this field, but this particular incident doesn't prove any of that. I haven't seen any data on those things. If anyone has it, I'd love to know. If not, I'd love to see someone with more readership than I have collecting that information (and please, not via LJ poll; limiting poll-takers to LJ account users automatically skews the data). The publishing industry's apathy towards market research never fails to amaze me. I hope that apathy won't be matched by people on the consumer end of things. Let's get some hard data here and see where it takes us.