Fact, Opinion and the Changing Past.

Years ago, when I was stuck on the Magical British Empire books, two of my friends and beta-readers (YES, TWO OF YOU) made the worst possible interpretations of some paragraphs and one of them (not the one you’d expect) started sending me videos of animals having gay sex, for “inspiration.”  (This is why Kate calls those “the gay animals sex” books.)

When I protested, the one of the two who, like me, has been through the mill of a literature degree got mock-virtuous and said “you know books  are a collaborative art form.  Once you release literature into the world, the reader adds his or her own bit.  You don’t own it anymore.”  He said this exactly as many literature professors have said it, and he did it to get my goat, because we’d discussed literary interpretation before.  (I’ll get you for this some day, young man!  Age and guile beat youth, innocence and superior intelligence.)

The reason he knew it would get my goat, is that, both of us having graduate degrees in literature, we’d shared our annoyance before over the … for lack of a better term… Modern Arting of literature.

Modern Arting, you say?  Oh, yes, Sarah, enlighten us, you marvelous wordsmithShut up, I say.  And do grow up.  Honestly, it’s like you never made up a word.  You’re just specialsnowflaking it again.

The modern art I mean almost always depends on interpretation and “a story” to make it art.  I’m talking of course of the type of “art” that gives my family extreme pleasure when we go to museums and get to wander about giving our egregious interpretations of it.  (Or critiquing the trash can as an installation.)  Yes, I know you can go to art classes for years to be taught that a twisted mess of kitchen implements is art.  But being taught that don’t make it so.  (Note this is not eschewing art that is done with different materials, or in different ways.  One of the best exhibits I’ve seen at the art museum were life-sized nude clay figures that seemed to move because of light/sound changes caused by people walking through the exhibit.  Classical?  No.  We have better tech now.  But interesting, oddly beautiful and… emotionally touching.  I’d say that is the measure of art – does it touch you in a way pure reason can’t?)

A lot of literature taught in classes depends on the story, on what the critics have said about it, for the professor (not necessarily the student, who might find more value or less, depending) to consider it “art.”  The interpretation is considered an integral part of the art piece.

When I was going through college, the fad was “significance.”  A piece had to be a social critique or have “significance” to count.  When this was applied backwards it resulted in some… uh… Odd interpretations.  I love Effie Briest, for instance.  It was the only part of German literature I really liked (For some reason memorizing Wagner’s librettos failed to do much for me).  But my professor de-emphasized the adultery as society disrupting sin that was part of the novel’s conception and instead viewed it, solely, as an anti-war novel.  (I don’t think that was even a major note in the novel, though I confess it’s been a long time since I read it.  But I doubt the author was writing to condemn the military.  According to my professor, the author also, apparently, was writing to prevent WWII.  Who knew?  Writers are clairvoyant.  And powerful.  “I’m writing to prevent Hitler.”  “Who?” “Exactly. It’s working.”)

Shakespeare – bless his heart – was a Marxist, according to my professors.  Yep.  It was that time travel from Black Adder…  It would have given the loyal bard of the Tudors heart attack, but never mind.

Jane Austen?  Totally a 20th century feminist.

And always, the “the reader contributes his interpretation and every interpretation is equally valid.”

I never understood this.  AT ALL.  Or rather, I understood it.  It benefits a certain type of mind to be able to give legitimacy to half-baked theories, or to turn history on its head by claiming they have the right to interpret things ANY WAY THEY PLEASE and every view is equally valid.

Under the name of post modernism, this theory is destroying our universities.  It’s also doing no good at all to science fiction.  It means if someone is upset at being called a lady, her interpretation that the author is totally a misogynist is valid, and we should shut the man out.  Even if he never meant it.  And if several writers object to the fact that Heinlein’s women wanted to have babies?  Misogynist author.  The fact he never mentions skin color in his early works?  Racist author.  The fact that he has a book in which he disapproves of homosexuals (and a dozen books in which he doesn’t)?  Homophobic author.

In fact, if you read Heinlein’s letters or extra-textual material, he obsessed about not… How do I put this?  Not piling on on the weak.  It sometimes had an unpleasant feel of literary affirmative action, but it was just him taking it very seriously that minorities who had no defense (at the time) should not be piled on or reviled.  However, this reading of extra-textual materials and trying to figure out what the author meant has gone out of style.  Now every interpretation is just as valid.  And besides, the reader adds his own layer on the work.

Right.  Is this a totally invalid effect?  No.  I’ve talked here before about how sometimes your subconscious is up to stuff you don’t know, how the reader fills in “an otherwise thin” narrative to give the feel and texture of a full world and perceives things you didn’t know you’d put in.  It always stuns me when someone tells me something about one of my own characters and I realize it’s true.  Then I go and look in the books, and wow, it’s true.  But I didn’t realize I’d put it there.

It is this elasticity, this interpreting of penumbras that gives people the brilliant idea they can interpret things any way they please, because it must be there without the author’s knowledge.

Er… Two things: first, you’re entitled to your own opinions; you are not entitled to your own facts.

You might decide that Heinlein’s women wear aprons as a sign of degrading servitude.  You cannot however maintain it when someone points out that clothes were far more expensive in those days, (when he was writing.  Yes, he should have foreseen their becoming cheaper, but consider he also thought we’d be bursting at the seams with overpopulation) and so you ended up having to wear aprons when doing something that might stain the clothes.  (Clothes were nicer too.  I mean, I go through a bunch of jeans and ts a year because I don’t wear aprons (stupidity and forgetting to put them on, mostly) but I buy them at $5 at arc.  If I bought them at $20, instead, I’d remember the apron.)  And just screaming “But that’s how I see it” doesn’t make it so.

Yes, people see insane stuff in my work too.  I love it when people view Darkship Thieves as a Marxist masterpiece.  (And yes, I know which of you just snorted his morning coffee out his nose, because I shared three such reviews with you.  Yes, I remember that hurts.  I still owe you a keyboard, too.  Sorrrrry.)  I don’t for a moment believe the view is valid – I’m not INSANE and my subconscious is not that subconscious-y – but it amuses me.  I love it when people see Athena as oppressed.  I love it even more when they see her as a reflection of me.  (Gosh, I wish.)  However, I don’t go to people’s blogs and play whackamole with them for having these crazy notions.  I don’t even do it when people have genuinely insulting views – Athena as a Mary Sue, for instance.  (Gosh, I wish.)  Yeah, I could argue they’re nuts, but it’s their blog and it’s their opinion, and we get into the realm of “what do you think a Mary Sue is?” and “Now give me examples of how I did that?”  “Oh, I see, you think the fact she’s enhanced is Mary Sue?  That’s not my view, but I see where you might think that.”

Not worth it.

My rule in general is this: if you want to interpret something in a way that justifies your liking it, more power to you.  If you’re a devoted communist, and think that Athena is your comrade, sail on, you glorious nutbar.  In your journey you might rethink a point or three about state power, and who knows… your kids might read it and their minds might be sown with the seeds of individualism.

My next rule is: no matter how wrong you are, if you’re wrong in YOUR blog, and you don’t come and ask me to defend why I killed a million baby bunnies in Noah’s Boy, I’m not going to follow you to your lair and beat you over the head with “there were no bunnies in Noah’s Boy.”  I have books under contract, I have work to do.  I am however not responsible if the fans find you and argue with you.  But neither am I likely to join in, unless you get personal and even then I’m not likely to bother.  Nor, btw, will I direct fans to go annoy you.  (My husband might, but even then you have to be REALLY offensive and have hit him the wrong way for him to do so.)

However, if you come to my blog and accuse me of hypocrisy with a distorted and bizarre view of my work, yes, I’m going to get offended.  No, I’m not going to stop a pile-on if the fans get in one.  And no, I’m not even going to be in the slightest bit sorry. (This is not to be confused with the pile-on that happened due to misinterpreting someone WHILE I WAS ASLEEP.  In future, people from Europe or other time-shifted continents who are being piled on, should retreat till I wake and crack heads.)

Look, this blog is my living room.  If you come in my living room and accuse me of puppy blending, I’m going to defend myself.

And while prose is elastic, it has its limits.  You can’t tell me that in your view every non-gay male in AFGM is evil and claim this is valid, when I can off the top of my head cite Sam, the universal father; Simon, debonair and more than a little nuts, but certainly not evil; Jan, the silent tower of strength; Fuse, damaged but endearing; Mr. Long enduring discomfort and putting himself out for total strangers; the kid who lets Luce out of the broomer’s lair, because Luce saved him… and on and on.

You CAN come in and say “But Sarah, didn’t you use the evil father cliché in DST and AFGM?”  And then we can discuss what “father” is, and why these people are evil, in a way that has nothing to do with cliché (there’s reasons, both in the way they were raised and the life they’ve lead that makes them evil.  It’s not just “ooh, father, evil.”)  Because that’s a valid (if in my opinion wrong) opinion.

You can – duh, every reader can – say “I don’t like this” or “it makes me uncomfortable.”  I was aware when I wrote the book that having two gay main characters in AFGM might make people uncomfortable.  I don’t even assume you’re homophobic if it makes you uncomfortable.  Certain types of characters make me writhe that I’m okay with as friends.  I don’t live in my friends’ HEADS.

Saying “I didn’t like this book because the mushy stuff” – I assure those who haven’t yet read the book that the only mushy stuff is in letters, and we never get to read it because the letters were censured by the army.  Long story – “made me uncomfortable” is perfectly valid.  You don’t even need to give any reason for not liking it – even in my blog.  You can say “I hate the Shakespeare trilogy” or “I don’t like your romantic fantasy” and refuse to say anything else. Of course, one would wonder why you would come to my blog to tell me that, but that’s something else. (BTW, the “only the gay males are good” COULD apply – if you squint – to Soul of Fire.  It’s not true, but it can be argued and it’s harder to protest.)

You can’t, however, come in and say “you’re an hypocrite because my interpretation of your work goes against what you say you did.”  If you COULD do that, and if your interpretation – unbacked – were indeed as valid as the author’s intent, then why would authors write ANYTHING?

Sooner or later, someone would come along and say “I think Heinlein liked to strangle puppies, because there is a line that says kittens are always justified, but it says nothing about puppies.”  And suddenly, the poor man many years dead would be TRANSFORMED into a puppy-hater, despite all textual and extra textual evidence to the contrary.

This is what got me so upset, well beyond the personal angle (and the personal angle is bad enough.  I  mean, would you go into someone’s living room and call them liars, because YOU THINK you see something in their work?  And not retract it when people refute what you think you saw?)

IF everyone’s interpretation is equally valid, then the past, perforce, changes more than the future.

Which means in the great, glorious Soviet present, we’re always sure about the (sad) future of books.  It’s the past that keeps changing.

And that Gulag of the mind I oppose, not just on my behalf, but on the behalf of every ink stained wretch who ever put pen to paper or hands to keyboard, or even dictated a story and who, by gum, has the right to defend himself and the text put down in the story from outrageous charges leveled against him. (And if he’s dead has the right not to have stupid charges leveled against him and living writers should pound stupid charges down.)

Or, as Shakespeare said (supposedly alluding to Marlowe’s death – maybe.)  When a man’s verses cannot be understood nor a man’s good wit seconded with the forward child, understanding, it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.

269 thoughts on “Fact, Opinion and the Changing Past.

  1. Wait… your beta readers sent you videos of animals having gay sex? Man, do I feel cheated. My beta readers just want to yell at me about commas.

    I remember, many years ago, reading over a friend’s master thesis in which she explained that the Wizard Of Oz was actually about the failure of The Populist Party to enact lasting economic reforms. (I think the Cowardly Lion was really William Jennings Bryant.) I asked her at the time if she thought it was true and she said that she didn’t, but she knew it would make her professor happy.

    If one reads selectively, one can “prove” just about anything. On a screenwriter’s message board back in the days of Usenet there was a Neo-Pagan who kept bringing up Stonehenge as proof that the “Pagan Culture” was superior to “Judeo-Christians”.

    Just to get under his skin I advanced the theory that Stonehenge had actually been built by Jews who fled to the British Isles following the diaspora. I pointed out that the Jews used a lunar calendar and had animal sacrifices as regular observances, and that they clearly had the earthworking skills from building the Egyptian pyramids.

    The crazy thing is that the more I dug into Stonehenge looking for Hebraic connections, the more I found. It got to the point that I kept a file of linkages and connections that I still might turn into the background for a story.

    Anyway, the point is that people find what they are looking for. If someone wants to see your work as a warning against the evils of fluoridation in drinking water, they will find proof of it.

    1. Well, that’s the thing. You can pretty much find linkages to everything, if you look hard enough; and they might even be justified in certain ways. (The Phoenicians lived next door to Israel and did trade tin in Britain, and though Stonehenge is older than that, you could theorize trade routes having started a long time back, maybe with small stubborn entrepreneurs who hopped the shoreline in tiny boats or with a network passing stuff from person to person, like Mississippian trade routes in the US.) But heck, that British Hebrew stuff is old enough to get new again. 🙂

      Anyway, like Hans Talhoffer says in his fechtbuch of medieval combats, Fight Earnestly, “The good man must speak up for the truth, even when it seems obvious and happens often.”

      1. And now I’m reading Fight Earnestly instead of writing. Of consequence, today may be a mostly research day. If nothing else, I love seeing cool people from part of my life interacting with other parts of my life. The reading will be good for one (and all, but specifically one) of my current projects, and I’m attending a week long camp on Italian/Spanish swordsmanship in Michigan in July, so will also be good preparation for that. Besides, my characters don’t seem to want to play much right now. Not sure what that’s about.

        Ringen am schwert with your SO: it’s like foreplay, but with more sharp steel!

          1. Yeah, this may be what I get for trying to outline. On the other hand, this is why I tend to have several things going at once: when one group stops moving, I can switch to another with relative ease. We shall see. The biggest thing right now is a strenuous new exercise regimen that’s making me just a bit logy. Two cups of coffee and some yoga, and I’m starting to feel human. Ish. As much as ever. Need to get out my personality-wrangling whip and get to work, though.

            1. hey, better having the story half way through an outline than half way through writing it.

              My own usual tactics are to figure out what is the universe’s equivalent of Raymond Chandler’s man coming through the door with a gun in his hand, and then do it, or, if I know what I thought came next, make sure the exact opposite happens, such as Anastasia was supposed to find out information at the fair, so a dragon roars across it and scares her and everyone else away. (Note that I had set up an irate dragon first.)

    2. The irony is that the British Isles are littered with such megalithic constructions, but from your description, he only heard of one.

        1. And in Dayton, we have a woodhenge (at the restored archeological site called Sunwatch), which was pretty clearly the same kind of calendrical structure but was built of wood by prehistoric folks here. (Which is to say that wood poles are a lot easier to set up than stones; and indeed, a woodhenge seems to have proceeded Stonehenge over in Salisbury.) Cahokia has a woodhenge too.

          Nobody has suggested that it wasn’t an independent invention, especially given all the other tribes who have sun-related calendar markers, mounds, stone carvings, drawings on cliffs, etc. It’s an ag thing.

        2. Yep. France, and as I said the North of Portugal. In the North of Portugal, if you uncover megalithic structures, you shut up and build over them — otherwise you’d never build anything.

          1. There’s your fairy problem from yesterday, then. You must have plenty of ’em, but nobody (fairy or human) is admitting it for fear of dealing with the government’s fairy taxes or fairy regulatory bureaucracy.

              1. As is a well established meme, working of great magic is taxing, leaving the magician exhausted. Since the magician is unquestionably taxed, the questions are: who collects the taxes, in what form are they paid and are the levies flat tax or a progressive rate?

                Of course, there is also the matter of filling in the forms to file your returns, but perhaps magic taxes are like sales taxes, taken at the time and point of purchase?

                1. hmm… perhaps in that setting, magic can be stored and re-used, and so in populated areas, the, oh, I don’t know, Department of Ethereal Revenue (if you feel like putting in a little comedy, name it the Department of Ethereal Revenue Production and nickname it DERP) has set up fields that sap off a given amount (flat, progressive, something else to the author’s taste) of the energy a caster puts into a spell. There could be ley-line-esque power grids crisscrossing the country in order to collect and deliver power. Perhaps regulations on private stockpiling of magical energy? And people who want or need more power than they’re allowed to utilize (perhaps because they’re weak to begin with, and the tax makes what was already difficult impossible. or because they’re doing large illicit experiments, and need to have access to everything they can summon up) are forced to go deep into the wilds to find untapped areas, or to raid the ley lines. And then of course there’s *why* it’s taxed in the first place. Is it because magic users are few and far between and the power gathered is considered a rare and valuable resource? Is magic an everyday thing most people have in at least some amount, and thus considered a utility like water or electricity? And what is the taxed magical energy used for? public services? to fuel a defense against an ancient evil? There’s a lot of places you could go with that.

              2. For some reason I thought you said “outlawed”, and my brain filled in the sentence:

                “Magic is outlawed, so of course only outlaws have magic.”

                … And now I’ve given you another story idea, haven’t I? I’ll just show myself out.

                  1. I thought he had just described some of the alternate worlds from Witchfinder.

            1. It was a road crew which was working nearby. They used the pyramid as a source of pre-crushed stone for road fill.

              Legend has it that many a set of marble steps up to the row houses in Philadelphia and Baltimore were made from marble ‘salvaged’ obtained from ruins in Europe.

                1. Well, most of ’em got plowed under, being just earthen mounds, albeit most of ’em got surveyed first. Shrug. Ohioans were on the whole proud of mounds, but there were just so darned many of them, plus all the other prehistoric earthworks… and though Ohio was the center of this stuff, they were all across the Northwest Territory and the lands beyond it.

                  Still, and even with all the theories about the moundbuilders (ie, being the lost tribes of Israel, which is where Joseph Smith got the idea, or some kind of lost civilization, probably not Native American) and the general interest in them, what’s really remarkable is that Ohio’s practical settlers and farmers preserved so many mounds, petroglyphs, earthworks, etc., just as they preserved the memory of all sorts of stuff about where the tribes had lived. They were history-minded.

                  1. We have actual, historical records of the moundbuilders. The Spanish saw them.

                    Which is why they are no more. Conquering the Aztecs was just the cherry on the sundae. The big killer was the disease.

                    1. The Natchez were likely the last tribe. They kept de Soto out of their territory, and likely killed him, but couldn’t keep the diseases out. They were finally wiped out by the French for the sin of buying guns from the English.

                    2. The Natchez were a Mississippian tribe, and part of the Mississippian culture. (So were the Cahokians, etc., and yes, the Missippians were connected to the Aztecs, Maya, etc. in some sorts of cultural symbols.) Their big thing is the “weeping eye.”

                      However, not all the mounds were Mississippian culture. The Adena culture and their successors, the Hopewell, seem to have had their own thing going, and their culture seems to have centered on big ceremonial complexes out in the middle of nowhere that were the object of “pilgrimage” and ceremonial processions around various mounds and features, by non-residents, possibly at certain times of the year that the features were oriented to make impressive.

                      Oh, and there’s the Fort Ancient people, and I forget if they’re supposed to be Mississippian or not.

                      Anyway, when they find bones they’re all Native American bones, not Martian, Jewish, Welsh, Norse, or folk from Faerie. But the Moundbuilder craze back in the early 1800’s didn’t know that.

                    3. Btw, if anybody’s interested, Kathleen and Michael Gear’s big series of historicals based on Native American archaeology includes People of the Weeping Eye, about the Mississippians and their spiders, and People of the Lakes, about moundbuilding up north by the Great Lakes. Don’t know how good they are as stories, but I know the anthro/archaeology part is supposed to be plausible speculation from real evidence.

                  2. Yeah, I’ve always kept in mind that the “lost” mounds were lost because a farmer had to decide between preserving an earthwork and providing for his family.

                    The Serpent Mound is one of the examples — the farmer who owned the land contacted an archaeologist and told him “hey, I need the money, but would rather not plow the mound under. Is there anything you can do?” So private donors in Boston poneyed up the money to buy the land, which eventually was given to the state.

      1. Many Arab Muslims traditionally have thought that everything in the Biblical stories happened in the Arabian Peninsula. So there used to be all sorts of pilgrim sites there for OT stuff. Over the last several hundred years, this has collided with the need to claim that Muslims always lived in Israel and Jews never did, and with many ordinary Muslims’ devotion to the actual tombs of the patriarchs and matriarchs, etc.

        I’m not sure how this works out in practice. I’m not sure how I keep coming across this stuff, frankly.

  2. “It means if someone is upset at being called a lady, her interpretation that the author is totally a misogynist is valid, and we should shut the man out. Even if he never meant it. ”

    I would never call such a woman, a lady.

    1. Invite him and glorify him with guest of honor positions and the like. Call it “shutting the man out” and it’s just as valid an interpretation of how to do that as hers.

      1. I think the problem arises when the women who interprets lady as misogynist and is offended, then insists that no one should be allowed to read the material because it is offensive.

  3. I read about how one person attempted to deal with the “I see it there so it is true” idea. While talking with a person who believed that idea, he responded with something completely ridiculous to every thing the other person said as “what the other person really meant”. Don’t think the other person really got the message. [Evil Grin]

  4. You can’t, however, come in and say “you’re an hypocrite because my interpretation of your work goes against what you say you did.” If you COULD do that, and if your interpretation – unbacked – were indeed as valid as the author’s intent, then why would authors write ANYTHING?

    You could respond by interpreting what he said as “I am in the throes of a nervous breakdown and ought to institutionalized, and I am begging you to help me.” Both interpretations are equally valid.

    1. You could respond by interpreting what he said as “I am in the throes of a nervous breakdown and ought to institutionalized, and I am begging you to help me.” Both interpretations are equally valid.

      Isn’t that pretty easy to get evidence for with EVERY author, often directly from their own lips?

  5. Many years ago, my girlfriend was taking a course in two-dimensional design. One of the assignments was to take a classic painting and analyze it in terms of pure design, laying out blocks of color to replicate the main shapes. So she picked Zurburan’s “The Apotheosis of St. Thomas Aquinas.”

    In a subsequent assignment, she was supposed to do a collage on an autobiographical theme. So she put the two of us in the center, with Laurie Anderson making a gesture of blessing above us (it’s a long story!), and all sorts of influences around us. And about when she was finishing it, I looked at it, and said, “Wait a minute, that’s the same design as that Zurburan painting, isn’t it?” Now, she hadn’t had any thought of imitating Zurburan’s theme or composition! But when we put them side by side, it just totally stood out for both of us. Ever since then, I’ve felt differently about the old story about the critic saying to Isaac Asimov, “Just because you wrote the story, what makes you think you know what it’s about?”

    But of course, as you say, the critic’s right to interpretation is not the same as a right to arbitrary or uninformed interpretation.

    That way lies coming up with elaborate theories about what rare substance is meant by “cold iron” and what its mystical properties were—when the source of the phrase, Kipling’s ballad by that title, is about the Crucifixion, and the Roman army wasn’t using rare meteoric iron to make spikes out of; the point of the poem is rather that ALL iron participates in that mystical interaction with the body and blood of God. (Forgive me: This is one of my literary and linguistic hobby horses!)

    1. See, when I read that poem, I thought he was using “cold” to indicate that iron is generally considered an unexciting metal compared to say, gold or silver, when in fact the modern world is built on iron, and silver and gold play a pretty peripheral role in things.

      Of course, for the longest time I knew the first couple of stanzas, and wasn’t aware of the last stanza, which turns the whole poem on its head.

      1. Um, hate to tell you, but cold iron is a technical, descriptive term for non-molten iron. There’s cold iron, and then there’s hot iron. If you don’t believe me, search Google Books for pre-Kipling usages. There were cold-iron saws, aka cold saws, for cutting cold iron, that sort of thing.

        Practically speaking, most of us never deal with hot iron unless we are smiths or work in a steel mill, so most of your point stands. And yes, it’s annoying if people don’t understand that using cold iron against fairies was pretty much just using human, mundane materials. (Earlier generations used to take it as an iron age vs. bronze age thing, which is probably true of all the bronze-wielding Tuatha De Danaan and most of the great Irish chariot-riding heroes.)

        1. Interesting. I had seen indications that it meant iron that had had significant working done on it in the cold state rather than heated.

          1. In the novel Humphry Clinker by Smollett (1785), “a thrust of cold iron” means using a sword, and swords can’t be worked in the cold state. Hudibras by Samuel Butler (1757) also used “cold iron” to mean swords and weaponry. When Highland Scots swore upon cold iron, they would swear by laying a hand on the blade of their dirk. (And I’m sure the OED has better info, but I’m too cheap for the access.)

            Come to think of it, most of the stories of using cold iron against Irish fairies were sticking a knife in the hillside or something like that.

            So (1) iron in a cold state, and (2) a kenning for weaponry. Which is probably why later we hear “cold steel” used instead, because people get more exact or steel production gets more easy.

          2. You’re probably thinking of “cold working” which is metal worked below the recrystallization temperature, around 700 C.

            The Iowa class battleships had a torpedo belt of 12″ thick cold rolled steel. Which is pretty impressive. Until you think about the machine required to bend a one foot thick chunk of steel into the shape of a ship.

        2. I will grant both that there’s a technical usage (and, actually, a perfectly straightforward mundane usage: if iron, or for that matter any other material, is glowing red, for example, we call it “hot”!) and that Kipling was the sort of writer who is aware of such technicalities. But I don’t think that’s necessarily relevant to the poem.

          Kipling was imitating medieval ballads, and he was also knowledgeable enough to realize that such ballads very commonly used adjectives not to distinguish a specific type of thing from other types of that thing, but to emphasize the sensory quality of the thing. When a medieval poet writes that “the red blood spilled,” they aren’t telling you that the wounded person was a mammal rather than a mollusc (or a Vulcan!); they’re adding a sensory quality of the blood to make it more vivid, and probably to help the meter. And a notable sensory quality of iron under most conditions where people other than metalworkers encounter it is that, because of the high thermal conductivity of metals, it typically is cold to the touch, whereas wood or wool at the exact same temperature is much less so.

          In any case, I stand by my rejection of the “special esoteric kind of iron with magical qualities” interpretation. That’s modern readers doing folk etymology in ignorance of the actual linguistic history, and of the way poetic language actually works. In other words, it’s uninformed literary interpretation and thus bad criticism.

          1. “Red blood” is mostly there as a mnemonic device, though. You get to that part, and you use the cliche, and it helps you remember the next part that’s different. So it’s always the wine-dark sea and rosy-fingered Dawn, and blood-red wine, and good red gold, and so on. The sensory description is what makes the device work, but constancy is what makes it handy.

            Medieval Irish poets, however, had a tendency to use all their color synonyms all the time (and they had plenty), so that they could get more rhyme/assonance/alliteration schemes to work. Which is probably why they had to haul along a harper and a reciter and the whole crew, and were renowned for their memorization skills during composition – because their poems didn’t have as many obvious handy devices. (Still had ’em. Rowan berry red mouths, that sort of thing.)

            1. Keep in mind, always, that poets and authors pun — that is, they employ multiple meanings embedded in words and phrases to add depth to their allusions.

              If the working of magic by invoking the power of death is necromancy, and theomancy is invocation of the power of the gods, does it follow that working magic by way of allusion and similarity constitutes puncromancy? “Beware the Puncromancer, vilest and most cruel of magyck’s wielders!”

                  1. It is an observed fact that magic practices tend to follow two rules. You can make a voodoo doll with hair and pieces of clothing, which operates on the rule that things in contact remain connected afterward — the Law of Contagion. You can, on the other hand, pour water on the ground to get rain, on the principle that like produces like — the Law of Similarity.

          2. if iron, or for that matter any other material, is glowing red, for example, we call it “hot”!

            There is a state that metal (at least) can fall into where it’s not “cold”, but it’s not glowing anymore. I call it the “Oh f* f* f* that hurts” state.

            But then I learned (to the extent that I did) welding at Art School.

        1. The first few stanzas make it sound like the poem is talking about physical power, backed up by strength of arms and weapons, and that the better weapons win. (The Baron has men with swords, the king has cannons so the Baron is defeated.) Then when you get to that last stanza (although the stanza about breaking bread gives you a hint about what is coming)you are told that the true power over men is Christ’s sacrifice on the cross at Calvary.

            1. Shocking, isn’t it, that we get so much reading between the lines today that we hamper our ability to read plain English.

              You might enjoy Wayne C. Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction

  6. All interpretations are equally valid, but some interpretations are more equally valid than others.

    Students who attend this week’s rally against oppression will receive credit for class participation.

    1. Yes, and never ever forget that: All people are equal, but some people are more equal than others. 😉

    2. And if it’s a ‘dog whistle’ interpretation that would be ridiculous to the author and the intended audience, that just makes it extra special valid.

  7. > I love it when people view Darkship Thieves as a Marxist masterpiece. (And yes, I know which of you just snorted his morning coffee out his nose

    WHA – WHA – WHAT?!?!

    (thankfully my coffee was between sips when I read that)

    How do people even SEE that?

      1. No, it hadn’t. At least not on Earth, and out in space there was not communal shared ownership of resources, capital and production.

          1. To be sure, any literature with life in it will admit of differing interpretations, because life admits of them. You end up with people solemnly describing a war film as an anti-war film because it shows people being killed and injured and in pain (Zulu was the particular one I ran across, IIRC), or Dead Man Walking as a pro-death-penalty film because the condemned man only showed any signs of repentence after he learned the sentence would not be overturned.

    1. Blinders, my dear sir. Intellectual blinders, which they voluntarily put on a long time ago and now have forgotten that they’re wearing. An old joke to illustrate:

      Two days before Ronald Reagan arrives on a state visit, Gorbachev is walking around the Kremlin, and sees a young boy with a sign “Communist puppies, Free!” He sees the puppies they are newly born, in good health, and Gorbachev makes a note to show this boy and his obvious enthusiasm for Communism to Reagan when he arrives.

      Reagan arrives, and Gorbachev takes him around to see the boy with the puppies. He was still there, but now the sign says “Capitalist puppies”. “Weren’t they Communist puppies last week?” Gorbachev asks. “That was last week,” the boy says. “Now their eyes are open.”

  8. > Which means in the great, glorious Soviet present, we’re always sure about the (sad) future of books. It’s the past that keeps changing.

    1984: ‘He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.’

  9. When I was getting my BA in English Lit, my professor told us about the literary theory and then told us that she wouldn’t teach it. If we wanted to learn more, she would give us the references, but no papers in that theory would be accepted. 😉 I heard about it sideways from some other readers– it was coming out of the k-12 curriculum. UGH.

  10. Shakespeare – bless his heart – was a Marxist,*snip*

    Jane Austen? Totally a 20th century feminist.

    Sounds like historical characters in modern novels.

    1. Like that one where Jane Austen was still alive, thanks to being made a vampire. I really wanted to buy it, but the first page had Jane thinking and sounding just like any other chick lit/paranormal character. Maybe it got better after that, but I lost confidence in the author.

      1. I like I wanna say Stephanie Barron’s Jane Austen mysteries. They’re very much “good Jane Austen fanfic.” Unfortunately when the love interest died, it sort of killed the series too :/ For me, at least.

  11. And always, the “the reader contributes his interpretation and every interpretation is equally valid.”

    I’ve known for some time what was wrong with quotes like that (“every [insert noun of choice here] is equally valid”), but it wasn’t until just now that I recognized why they feel the need to spew this kind of mind-numbingly stupid statement: They don’t want to be told they’re wrong. It’s an extension of the unconditional self-esteem movement. “We will declare that all viewpoints are valid (except those vile Right-Wing Nazis of course), and that will mean that we’re ALWAYS RIGHT! Of course, it also means that we’ll have to ignore some truly idiotic drivel, but it will keep up everyone’s self-esteem! And that’s What Really Matters, isn’t it?”

    1. It also means you don’t have to bend your mind to empathizing or empathinking with the writer, who is a totally different human being than you are. Even though the ability to see the world from another person’s viewpoint is one of the advantages of education, allegedly.

      1. Another very good insight. By grafting your own “interpretation” through postmodernism, you don’t have to understand where the author was coming from; you just impose whatever meaning you want. It’s quite selfish behavior, if you ask me.

      2. Age-old problem. The commonest manifestation is, I think, claiming a passage or an entire book is ironic because you do not want to fathom someone who could support something like that.

    2. They tell you what your opinion is.

      If they call you an -ist of some stripe, you are an -ist because they say so.

      1. You know, I’m not one who has a problem with that, as long as their IS A distinction for the actual winners. There’s something to be said about having a small token for participating. For those who are not aggressive self-starters, these can be an encouragement. Again, however, there needs to be special recognition for those who exceed the rest, or else the best ones will tend to be discouraged.

        1. I have to agree with that. There _is_ a value in recognizing, “you came, you participated, you did the task.” My daughter was out to every softball game. She played through minor injuries (getting hit in tender places with pitched balls). She earned her award. (How many kids never even tried?)

          Would have been nice if her team could have gone on to win the league championship, but they washed out in the first round (luck of the draw–got put up against a _very_ strong team with a pitcher who puts the “fast” in fast pitch). Even so, I would have given her another award if I could: her first at bat she got hit in the foot with a pitched ball. That may not sound like much but she had to be helped off the field. Still, when her turn in the rotation came up, she hobbled up ready to go. (Coach and I both said “no!” and sent her back to the bench.)

          Incidentally, she was still hurting the next morning and I took her to see the doctor. Good thing, too. Turns out that hit was almost a “perfect storm” type thing. “Just to be safe” the doctor had her foot x-rayed. Well, the ball hit a tendon causing the end to partially detaching it from the bone. She’s in a “walking boot” to give it a chance to heal.

          The ball did _that_ to her and she had been game to go back out there and try. They didn’t give her any awards for that. She’ll have to settle for daddy’s praise . . . and a “participation award.” And somebody else went on to get the championship award.

              1. Exactly. I brag on The Daughter. 😉

                Anyway, to thewriterinblack — your daughter is praiseworthy. She not only showed up, she stuck with it as far as she could go. Good on her – Hip hip hooray!

            1. Oh, I do have to correct the above though. She did miss one game. I went to the field early and saw the “red flag” that indicated games rained out so we went to do another activity. Turns out that it dried out enough later that they could play after all (first round of games at 9:00 was rained out but the 11:00 games were on).

              But that was on me, not her.

    3. Not only that but some people would rather die than admit they were wrong.

    4. It is actually an extension of the school of thought in psychology and sociology that argues “social reality” is a construct, that for each participant the subjective is valid and there is not an objective standard.

      For the “friend” recommending you lose a few pounds the reality of the encounter was that they offered well-intended and helpful advice; for you the reality is that some damned buttinsky needs to review the concept of “borders.” You are both right: the subjective interpretations of the exchange are what matters.

      Development of empathy means understanding that social reality is a construct, assembled from the multiple individual perceptions of interactions. It does not require accepting others’ interpretations, merely recognizing them. If you thought a waiter was rude it does not matter whether they intended rudeness; in this case perception is reality (and some people are fated to live in a world of rude waiters.)

      It has been decades since I studied such twaddle and thus I am out of practice at its explanation. The fact that it has been extended to literary interpretation is not surprising, nor that it has been badly misunderstood and poorly applied. Good grief, they’ve attempted to apply it to basic physics (I can see it for quantum physics, sure, but that’s a special case.) While useful as a tool of analysis of individuals and cultures this principle should not be taken too seriously as other than an analytical tool. Just because a psychotic’s understanding of an event is valid for that psychotic is no reason for the rest of us to accept a psychotic’s interpretation as normative.

      1. I would love to drop people who think that into a steam plant and tell them “Make it go.”

        On the other hand, if I had a dollar every time some Chief told me “perception is reality” I’d be back in Colorado.

  12. Yes, he should have foreseen their becoming cheaper,

    Two points:
    1) he may not have really thought about “why do women wear aprons?” beyond the “to keep from getting dirty” stage, and
    2) “clothes cost less, because of better manufacturing standards and greater ease in doing laundry, so Main Character’s mom didn’t wear an apron” is kind of hard to work in to your world building.

    1. Men wore aprons, too, back then. Most professions wore protective clothing, if there was any danger of getting stuff dirty or getting hurt. For all our goggles and helmets, we don’t seem too worried about the possibility of burns or acid spills or oil or… Of course, some of that is replaced by today’s tough, easy-to-wash work clothing, overalls, lab coats, etc., instead of the old men’s work aprons, smocks, etc.

      1. Frankly, I’m reminded that I should probably get an apron or two. One of the reasons I haven’t bothered is that when I get home, I change into sweats, and my around-the-house sweats are “beaters” (I just let anything happen to them and replace when worn out). However, if I get the weight back to a manageable level, I won’t feel that need to change out of my day clothes so much.

      2. It used to be that the Mail Handlers ( a specific craft in the US Post Office that unloaded and loaded trucks, dumped bags and did…other stuff – it’s a union thing ) would wear neck to shin denim aprons that were split from the crotch down. Then had ties that would go around the back of each leg to keep the material in place to keep pants from getting dirty and worn out on the thighs from picking up and tossing around mail bags and bulky packages, but gave enough freedom to actually move around.

        1. I wish I’d heard of that when I worked retail. I worked for a schizophrenic store. They expected employees to wear nice dresses and pumps BUT we were also expected to unload the trucks — this meant I ruined many a dress. Aprons didn’t give enough freedom of movement…

    2. I still love the fact that in Have Space Suit, Will Travel’ they are using slide rules. I could waste my time arguing that one the greats of SF working the late 1950s might have foreseen miniaturization necessary for the building of a space suit also being applied to computers, and therefore dismiss the book … but I would miss a ripping story and some marvelous characters.

          1. This is why we need very well trained pixies. (Otherwise your pixies will deliberately bump your elbow and then put the cards out of order.)

      1. In the ’50s, computers were still vacuum tube technology. One might reasonably predict reducing a powerful-enough computer to a 10’x10’x10′ cube, but the personnel might then still carry slide rules to do calculations when not on board.

        1. Ah, exactly, even the most savvy and prescient writer is not going to see everything that is coming in the future. So, when someone wrote about people cooking they might well wear aprons to protect their clothes. The person who says that to do is an obvious sign of sexism is saying far more about themselves and how they view the world than speaking truth.

          Almost every picture I have of James Beard shows him wearing an apron, if an apron is the symbol of female suppression, what am I to make of that?

          1. one of the things I find odd is that all female tasks are considered “demeaning” by feminists and one infected with the virus once considered me “stupid” and assumed I was uneducated because I do lace crochet. (I am less ADHD since I gave myself concussion ten years ago. Reduced brain power I suspect, or different channels, or sensory muting [my vision and hearing got much worse instantly] but until ten years ago, and seems to be coming back, if I wanted to concentrate on just one thing (like a talk, or a panel) I needed to have something else for my hands to do. Otherwise I got bored and my mind wandered off.)

            1. I once had a critiquer say that a work was anti-feminist because the heroine saved the day by sewing something. He had enough awareness to be embarrassed by it, since he had read it and knew her character, but not enough to stop himself.

    3. Clothing is also a uniform and a statement. When your hostess had put on an apron over her party dress at her dinner party she was also saying that she has done this work with her own hands – there is no kitchen girl or hired caterer doing it- and she is serving you personally to make sure that you are having a good experience. This on top of the fact that she is dressed really well to show you respect. It is a much more republican (small r ) and egalitarian way of doing things.
      Of course, now you don’t do that because you buy your canapés and dip from the upscale deli. I’m not sure about the implications that conveys.

      1. Of course, if the guest being served in that apron is a representative of the category “beau” it is highly likely that the hostess did very little of the food preparation, leaving that to friends and female relatives while she prettied herself up and donned the apron to foster the illusion of domestic ability.

        Or at least, so some men would have you think. Far be it from me to endorse the misogynistic view that any woman would employ deception to make herself more attractive to men. And, if she does, I am sure it is only because the false values of men force women to do so.

        1. Having been in the “oh, you want me to defrost that?” stage of relationships, I find someone willing to dress up in a frock or apron, or at least pretending to care, to be delightful.
          I collect (well, accrete) old cookbooks. It is amazing how many from the late 60’s are about making dinner party food. It may inspire me one day to hold one. (but no frocks, unless I learn to braise them better.)

  13. [ “the reader contributes his interpretation and every interpretation is equally valid.” ] These are the same people who say we are not allowed to make value judgements in real life as well. I’m sorry, but some opinions _are_ more valid than others. Some actions _are_ more worthy than others. And the people who thing that everything is just as acceptable as everything else are … holders of an invalid opinion 😉

    1. Of course. How else could they denounce others for holding the invalid opinion that some opinions are better than others?

  14. My next rule is: no matter how wrong you are, if you’re wrong in YOUR blog, and you don’t come and ask me to defend why I killed a million baby bunnies in Noah’s Boy, I’m not going to follow you to your lair and beat you over the head with “there were no bunnies in Noah’s Boy.”

    Oh, good, for a moment you had me going … of course you might have gone all Monty Python and the Killer Rabbit …

              1. Tsk! That auto correct! Did you mean desk or computer?

                A complete nonsequitor like “grave” lends credulence to the theory that the NSA and DHS are not just monitoring, but actually changing our communications. And really, I don’t think things have gone that far. Yet.

              2. Have fun on the way! Make sure it’s someone with a honkin’ big motorcycle.

                  1. Eh, people misunderstand when they make “the” grim reaper. I expect to outlive my husband, and the day he turns back up looking young, healthy, and full of mischievous excitement under that hooded black cloak, making sarcastic references to being far better with an assegai than a scythe, is the day I hop on the back of that motorcycle and take off with a will.

                    Now, if it were my mother, I’d be planting my feet and saying “Nope! Not going! Five more years, mom!”

                    1. Doesn’t sound weird at all. Felines, when they go, leave a cat-shaped hole in our hearts.

                      It’s been fifteen years, and I still miss Autumn.

                    2. Pete was an unholy terror. It’s been 12 years. It’s been three for Pixie (Pixel who-walks-through-walls) who was best cat evah, and I still miss him everyday. Havey has a little of Pixie’s personality.

            1. I think I’ve read Baen books too long. I had to remind myself just which Cottontail we were talking about…

  15. You CAN come in and say “But Sarah, didn’t you use the evil father cliché in DST and AFGM?”

    Here I thought that you were taking a moral stand and making a very eloquent argument that clones are fully people, too. Therefore they should have all the rights inherent and not be created and used for the medical convenience of others.

      1. There’s a difference between a necessary-to-the-plot evil father, and a Oh-the-Bad-Guy-needs-a-motive . . . “Ahha! Abused by his father. Now back to the dungeon where he’s got the scantily clad Alien Princess on the rack . . . “

              1. Nah, she’s just racking up the number of times she can get a rise out you.

            1. OK, now I know I must be coming down with something, because this song is what came to mind:

          1. Depends on the writer, the intended audience, and the proclivities of the Publisher it’s under contract to. All subject to the reinterpretation of the University professor who assigns it as a class project. Poor Fool! She thinks it will keep her Literary Students away from the poorly edited trash churned out by Red Headed Hacks (c).

  16. “A lot of literature taught in classes depends on the story, on what the critics have said about it, for the professor (not necessarily the student, who might find more value or less, depending) to consider it “art.” The interpretation is considered an integral part of the art piece.”

    I rather strongly suspect that “The professor’s interpretation is considered an integral part of the art piece”, and if yours disagreed with the professor’s you might not get a good grade in that class.

    I know that I royally annoyed a professor in a technology course when I pointed out that his explanation of how something worked did not agree with reality.

    IIRC I only had one literature course in college. The entire semester was devoted to “Alice in Wonderland” as interpreted by our “hate the USA” professor. I did not get a good grade in that course.

    1. I don’t really want to know what in the world was done to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by a ‘hate the USA’ professor. I know that barring a Herculean effort on my part and truly miraculous Godly intervention I would not have survived that Lit class.

            1. Well, that would be challenging . . . but possibly the good sort of challenge, if they’d let you do it your way, instead of a canned program fresh from the Educational Experts.

              1. My way– plus I will talk to the program who is asking for a basic English course (Criminal Justice) ;-). I write the syllabus, etc. I decide on the books as well. Since it is a Continuing education course, they ask that I recommend less expensive textbooks. This side of the college (continuing education) curriculum is run by what the students need and will buy. Does anyone know of a good English grammar book that is under 20 dollars?

    2. The only literature class I took in college was taught by an assistant professor at a junior college in New Mexico. It was EXCELLENT! The professor really knew his stuff. He made the Illiad and the Odyssey come alive, and Dante’s Inferno memorable. Those were three of the five books we had to read for class. I have the other two, but they didn’t impress me as much. I also took the course in 1969, and I was working 50-60 hours a week, which also helps explain my lack of enthusiasm for them.

  17. Aprons $5 at ARC? Thank you, Sarah. The next time I buy jeans there, I’ll get a barbecue theme or otherwise not too sissy apron. I was just thinking yesterday I need an apron here, none of my work jeans is presentable because the tubs full of books I haul have darked the front of the legs.

          1. Sorry, I looked back through, and you said the jeans were $5 at ARC and you didn’t mention the price of aprons. So aprons might be cheaper at ARC, and they would be a good investment for me. Used jeans in ridiculous sizes like 42W very very long length are close to $20 or at least $10 and over, even at ARC, and they sometimes aren’t available there.

              1. Or… I could set aside a pair of jeans or two NOT to wear to work, only to wear on hours and days off. Why don’t I think of these things.

                1. If the problem is that the leg fronts of your trou get stained, why not consider wearing chaps (the Brit pun production facility occupying the back of my mind now has “she wore chaps to protect her fanny” in the finishing room)? I suspect that such apparel is readily available in many tack shops.

                    1. Ah well, there my age is showing. I am familiar with them as working garb for cowpokes wrangling cattle out of the brush. Leather, so expensive but durable — a capital investment that saves money in the long run..

                      Although, now that I strain the memory, I do recall one picture of fleecy white chaps worn by a shapely lass reclining in such way that the chaps drew the eye to her fanny.

                    1. What can I say? I saw Man of Steel last week, and now I’m feeling inspired.*

                      (Deep breath. Hands on hips. Dramatic pause, followed by a leap into action wearing new pants and singing the Gatchaman theme song.)

                      at this point I would like to point out that it would have been very easy to just make the obligatory “Everything’s bigger in Texas” reference, and move on. I thought it beneath me. Mostly. Besides, quilt size discussion would be a tangent too far even for me. Don’t get me started on the whole King size / California King size discussion.

                  1. There are some white/tan canvas chaps available these days– much easier to deal with than leather ones. (Worthless for riding, but great for working with hay.)

                  1. Used, at least for women, aren’t that hard to find. Well, at least here you can buy them very cheap since nobody uses them anymore, that kind which women still wore during the 50’s and 60’s and girls made for themselves in school sewing classes (me too, although I don’t have the one I made myself anymore). I have several, including a couple made for the hostess to use while serving to guests at parties – expensive cloth, decorated with handmade embroidery.

                    1. Ah, but aprons are back in fashion in the retro underground. I think it has to do with the government removing all sorts of chemicals from our laundry detergent and dyes. Oil spots are near impossible to get out and certain dyes are unstable, so when you do get the oil out you have fading…

                    2. And this leads me to wonder: If women on the cutting edge are embracing the apron as a fun and funky throw back, what does this mean for the older hard line feminists who decry the apron as a sign of female suppression?

                    3. Oh yes. We’ve had to throw out clothes because of grease spots. When/if/G-d willing we move to a house where we expect to live ten or more years, I intend to build a washing tank Portuguese style and just use hand soap on that stuff.

                1. It’s a charity for “developmentally disabled” folks. Like Salvation Army and Goodwill, they raise operating capital (among other ways) by operating thrift stores.

  18. Nobody actually believes that “all interpretations are equally valid”. That’s just what they _say_. What they actually believe is “my interpretation is valid and yours is heresy, and if you try throwing any icky _evidence_ into the argument to refute me, I can just utter this magical incantation (‘all interpretations are equally valid’) and it’ll make you shut up and go away, so that I get to always win”.

    After all, if all interpretations were equally valid, then by definition your interpretation would be as valid as theirs, and it’s VERY clear from their behavior that they don’t believe THAT.

    You’ll note that “equally valid” never comes up, except when the person who incants it is clearly about to lose the argument. Argue for a neo-Objectivist reading of “Stone Soup” (as I’ve sometimes been tempted to go back to college just so I can try doing) and the response from the modern-art-lit-crit crowd won’t contain a single allusion to the supposed equal validity of all interpretations. Because, of course, they only bother pretending to believe in such nonsense when it serves their political purposes to do so. “Equality” is a positive mental trigger for most Americans, while “sit down and shut up and do what you’re told, peon!”…well…isn’t. The amazing thing is how often we allow them to get away with dressing the latter meaning in the former language.

    It turns out, of course, that what we believe is closer to their nostrum than what they believe is. We, after all, are at least willing to assert that unusual and/or revisionist interpretations ought to be examined carefully to find whatever points of concurrence with reality they might have, and then incorporate those points of concurrence into the new standard. (See ref, your readers finding things in your stories that _are_ there, but somehow got there without you noticing them, despite you being the one who wrote it down.)

    1. Exactly. It’s the same thing as “calls for unity”. A call for “unity” is always a call for the other side to abandon their position and join yours without having to have the discussion about who may actually be right.

              1. Firearms, blades, motorcycles, kilts, starship designs, expressions of pulchritude, truly excellent hats, methods of caffeination . . .

                1. cheeses, spices, preparations of alcohol, holster designs, calibers, fireworks, flora, fauna, both on the earth and in the freezer, routes to Low Earth Orbit, aircraft, boats, barbeque…

  19. I’m in a really carpy (yes, carpy, not that other word that won’t be mentioned) mood today, so forgive me with this if it offends. During my ten years living in Germany, we visited hundreds of museums, and saw paintings by most, if not all, the Great Masters, from Michaelangelo to van Gogh. Some of it was impressive (the Sistine Chapel ceiling is fantastic), but a lot of it was of the category of “this was done to cover a hole in the bedroom wall” variety, even from the ‘Great Masters’. Not all literature, not all sculpture, not all paintings, affect a person in the same way. Some of Rubens’ paintings are sappy. Some of his sculpture profoundly affects me. The same goes for just about any other painter, sculptor, or writer, regardless of what century he, she, or it lived and produced “art”.

    I would never THINK of going on some private person’s page and disparage, or even critique, their work. Even if I were to critique it, it would be private and personal, via letter or email. I CERTAINLY wouldn’t go on THEIR weblog and critique their personal beliefs. Each of us have the right (at least, so far) to our own thoughts and beliefs, and even the right to express those openly. There is something called “personal etiquette” that says that’s tacky and uncalled for. Some people think it’s their “duty” to spew forth their own ideas, and force them upon others, in the other person’s space. Such people are social parasites. It should be permissible under the law to exterminate such people with word or deed!

    1. Some of Rubens’ paintings are sappy.

      They certainly had quite different views on the relations between fat and beauty.

    2. Um, demurring… Yes, it is our hostess’s blog (and living room) and she should do what she wants with it, but how can you have a discussion that’s more than a bunch of nodding heads if nothing controversial can be mentioned? Or if controversy is OK for the issues of the day but not, say, for the book issue at hand?

      I find throughout the internet that the habit of attack first (even when I sympathize) and ask questions later is also, how shall I say, extreme. Surely we can (nicely, politely, sympathetically) raise “But Sarah…” points without triggering Armageddon?

      Although I do seem to remember some words about a Latina temper…

      1. As I did point out, if the person commenting had said something even remotely relating to my book, there would have been discussion. If you say stuff like “but, isn’t the evil father stereotype embodied in Athena’s and Luce’s fathers?” we can DISCUSS it. I don’t think it is, and other people clearly read it as I meant it, but it’s debatable.
        But coming in with a clearly false accusation that, in context, also accuses me of lying, is not the way to have a polite discussion.
        Look, I know SF people lack in social skills, but if you want to have a debate with a friend over, say,how he prices his books on Amazon, do you open by saying, “You’re charging 500 a book” when they aren’t. “And you’re a price gouger” or do you say “Have you considered that maybe six dollars is too much for a first novel?” Do you see the difference? One is debatable, the other is crazy, non-reality-connected accusation.

      2. The error in your argument is the idea that something controversial can be mentioned without exciting controversy.

        ’round heah, Missy, we ‘specks y’all to back up yore arg-u-mints, with facts and logic and reasonin’. Y’all don’t go dropping yore bombshells in on the carpet an’ pretend it ain’t for debate.

    3. “Some of Rubens’ paintings are sappy.”

      I thought he just did movies and odd performance art in dark theaters.

      1. Ah, the difference a first name and a letter makes. You can be Peter Paul Rubens or Paul Reubens.

        Sigh. You know how many times I defended the weird celebs back in the Eighties? Almost all of them turned out to have those ignorant prejudices of my classmates or brothers turn out to be true. It was discouraging.

    4. Mike Weatherford | June 20, 2013 at 1:21 pm
      > I’m in a really carpy […] mood today,

      So — you’re having a Carpy Diem?


  20. I write to prevent Maximilian.*

    So, since my characters are all offensive to one group or the other, how come not a single group has brought thousands of copies for a bonfire?

    Oh. Ebooks. Right. Well. I’ll get them into print soon enough. Then the Guys who hate Independent Women can snatch copies from the Women who are Outraged by my young witches who keep falling in love with cute guys. One group can burn my books because of that lesbian couple, the other group because I only have one homosexual couple in the series. Cat lovers will hate me, because cats are extinct in the parallel world most of the stories happen in. On the other hoof, the horse lovers will probably like them, and possibly save a few (suddenly rare and valuable) copies from the flames.

    Maybe that’s my problem, too many litmus tests flunked, badly. Especially the cats.

    *No, not Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, the other one.

      1. she might also be writing to prevent Luce’s “brother” — in which case, there should be a knock in her mind’s door… right… about… now.

      2. Hear, hear! No floating red robot death machines (except the ones *I* am going to have, of course!).

          1. Nah, unless my memory is faulty, he was talking about the murderous robot from the movie The Black Hole.

      1. I am sure that Havey would be delighted with the scene where my cross dimensional explorers meet their first cat. It is black and white, and mistaken for a local variety of skunk. They freeze in terror. The cat looks them over, then leaves in disgust.

          1. Ah, Pepe Le Pew. And old favorite of mine. I shall have to remember him when I write that smutty paranormal romance that is going to make me rich.

            No, I am not going to write about a were skunk. It’s the _style_ of wooing. I mean, really, how can my heroine resist an all out assault of French compliments caused by her instantaneous conquest of the . . . whatever he is.

  21. “And always, the ‘the reader contributes his interpretation and every interpretation is equally valid.’”

    Even when I was young and foolish and getting my BA in English Lit, I thought the idea that every interpretation was equally valid was just hokum. So I tried to push it with the professor I thought was one of the worst offenders by writing a paper that King Lear and Cordelia were actually the villains of the play, deserved everything they got, and Regan and Goneril were the true heroes.

    You can probably guess what happened, right? The professor was thrilled at my insight, and she gave me an A-minus.

  22. Literary criticism, at least some schools of same, actually, deliberately, eschew what the Author actually intended:

    The Intentional Fallacy: “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Authorial_intent)

    This apparently applies even when the author is right _there_.

    1. And then you have the “Affective fallacy”, that the reader’s impressions of the text are also irrelevant.

      You notice that this makes criticism heremetically sealed against correction, since neither the reader nor the writer can do it, — and who else could?

    2. I have referred to this scene in Back to School before, I am sure I will find cause to do so again:

      [after Diane gives Thornton an ‘F’ for his report, which was actually written by Kurt Vonnegut]

      Diane: Whoever *did* write this doesn’t know the first thing about Kurt Vonnegut!

      [cut to Thornton’s dorm suite]

      Thornton Melon: [on the phone] … and *another* thing, Vonnegut! I’m gonna stop payment on the cheque!

      [Kurt tells him off]

      Thornton Melon: Fuck me? Hey, Kurt, can you read lips, *fuck you*! Next time I’ll call Robert Ludlum!

      [hangs up]

  23. English is such a wonderfully… vague… language. As a result, as you point out Sarah, some things are subject to interpretation. Sometimes readers spot things the author didn’t realize was there.

    Sometimes though, even with all of the flexibility of the language, people are just seeing what they want to see by, as you pointed out, ignoring other parts of the pattern. Or deciding that every little detail, especially in this post-modernist age, has some significance outside of the story as meta-commentary of some sort. My favorite example satire of this still, after all of these years, is Ben Stein as the teacher in Ferriss Bueller – “What is the symbolism of the bars of the jail cell as…” (as he draws vertical lines on the blackboard. Slowly)

    The idgits who forget that a story is a story. Worse, the more you make it about the world outside of the story rather than keeping it self-contained, the faster it dates itself as the touchstones and meta-references are lsot with the passing of generations.

    But it is not so. Sure, things can be vague. Take “game” for example. It’s damn near impossible to look at all the games I play (computer, euro, sports, board, role-playing) and come up with a single definition that clearly exempts all things I would not consider a game, but include all of the things that I do. Yet, we tend to know when one is playing a game. A game isn’t defined so much by one set of standards that all games have and no non-games do, but by a family or common grouping of features – not all of which are necessary.

    Come to think of it – that’s a rather bayesian way of looking at it….

    A box of monopoly or chess pieces and board is a game. Painting model tanks is not a game. Putting them on a table with rules is. But that doesn’t make some random activity a game – nor does it make the contents of a kitchen drawer a game. But you could use them to create one…

    So there is flexibility in what meanings can be taken out of something. Yet, like Sorites paradox, while you can spend a lot of time arguing over exactly which grain of sand changes a pile into a heap, at some point, there IS a difference, and outside of that gray area, one is not the other.


    1. Jim Dunnigan – one of the founders of the gaming company SPI – once said he could design a game about anything. Someone called his boast, and Jim designed the game Wilderness Survival – which published by Avalon Hill was a steady bestseller for them.

      1. The map from that game apparently formed the basis of some of the earliest role-playing campaigns.

  24. Somewhat related:

    If it’s not mandatory, is it ‘banned’?
    BY: TIMOTHY P. CARNEY JUNE 19, 2013 | 8:00 AM
    One of the most persistent canards the Obama campaign got away with was that Republicans wanted to “end access to birth control.” What Republicans were opposing wasn’t “whether or not you can have contraception,” as one Democratic Congresswoman put it, but whether or not your boss should be required to pay for your birth control.

    I tried to refrain from using the “lie” word against the Democrats saying these things and the journalists repeating them as if they were true, because I think the liberal mindset sometimes doesn’t differentiate between state action and non-state action. If your boss says you need to pay for your own birth control, that may actually seem to some liberals as equivalent to the government banning birth control, somehow. Some liberals think that unless something is mandatory, it’s as good as prohibited.

    Sure enough, the liberal ThinkProgress blog this week talks that way involving paid sick leave.

    Some local governments in Florida want to force employers to pay their employees for sick days. The state government just passed a law saying municipalities may not do this. Think Progress writes: “Florida Governor Signs Business-Backed Bill Banning Paid Sick Leave.”

    But of course, the bill doesn’t “ban paid sick leave.” If it did, it would become illegal for employers to pay employees for sick days. Instead of restricting employers, the bill restricts local government and protects the freedom of employers in this regard.

    On civil liberties, liberal writer George Zornick explained the distinction on Twitter on yesterday:

    So tired of “Facebook collects info too” defense of NSA. Should be obvious, but: Facebook can’t arrest you. You can also quit Facebook.
    — George Zornick (@gzornick) June 18, 2013

    There’s a difference between government allowing your employer to place conditions on her paying you, and the government forcing you to do something.

    Links embedded in the original.

  25. The one Advanced Placement class I took in HS was English Lit — the teacher was good (and for some reason she *liked* me — most teachers didn’t want me in their classes, as I made them look bad), and so I actually learned how to write college-level papers.

    The problem arose with the first “training” paper we were supposed to write. The story was “The Minister’s Black Veil” [N. Hawthorne], and it’s exactly what it says on the tin — minister starts wearing veil all the time, never explains why, everyone around him starts trying to figure out why, minister dies, story ends. The idea was: The class would figure out “what the story was about”; then each student would write a paper based on that conclusion. The idea was to have everyone write on the same idea so when we reviewed the papers, we’d all have the same “starting point”, and could see where we diverged.

    One problem: The “consensus” was that the story was about “secret sin” (whatever the hell *that* meant). I read the story repeatedly, took copious notes — and for the life of me, could not figure out what the hell everyone else was talking about, and so could not put a word to paper.

    So I did what came naturally: I said “Fuck this”, and wrote what *I* thought the story was about (specifically: The minister was commenting of the hypocrisy of Puritan society — the veil being representative of the false piety and affected airs of the various folk in the community). 🙂

    The teacher gave me an “A”, as I’d done a far-more-effective job on proving my point than most other folk; however, she did ask me why I’d “gone off the reservation” (“again” going unspoken here). So I told her, straight-out: “I listened to everything everyone else said, read the story repeatedly, and took copious notes — and not one single solitary word of it made *any* sense to me whatsoever; so I went with what *I* saw and thought”.

    There was one of those Long Silences which usually followed me being brutally honest — and then about 3/4 of the class admitted they didn’t believe the explanation either, but had “gone along” rather than risk making a fuss.

    I suppose there’s a couple-three morals in this, but I leave it to the reader to figure out what they are. >;)

    1. Any effort to understand the Hawthorne story would require a detailed survey of the audience for whom it was written, their biases and expectations, themes in other of his stories and general themes of that era, as well as any possible story that it might have been a response to (as Haldeman & Scalzi and Harrison responded to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.

      Any effort to understand the class reaction would do well to start with this:

      How Drivel Wins Applause
      Combining a psychological experiment and mathematical analysis, the research marks a scientific attempt to quantify the fuzzy notion of “social contagion” — how individual behaviour is influenced by group dynamics

      1. The problem is that these days people DON’T present you with the time and what was going on. In fact, by my time, all stories were to have a pious progressive moral and if you said the author couldn’t have thought that in his time you were told of course he did, he just kept quiet “for fear.” So, you see, all RIGHT THINKING people have always thought exactly the same. Dissension means you’re stupid or evil.

        1. Well, of course there is no one way of reading a story, and anybody’s interpretation of it is valid, so actually knowing the context in which the tale was told is unimportant to our interpreting it today. That goes without saying.

          But it should be bleedin’ obvious that what this tale is actually about is a priest of the Elder Gods (it is in the subtext, you’ve got to read between the lines) bent on recalling them to our Earth to subject the human race to hell and damnation. I mean, what kind of blind idiot do you have to be to not see that?

          Or maybe he woke up one day a cockroach — the veil is a metaphor for that, as you should well understand, the audience of his time not being up to accepting such an actual metamorphosis.

          That’s the beauty of reducing liter’chure ter ink blots, enit? With sufficient abandonment of literal meaning you can turn any story into anything you want it to be. Even men who are portrayed as Good can be deemed Evil if you base your interpretation on the presumed evilness in the hearts of all men, with those who appear good being the worst, because they are disguising their bestial natures. It is a reflection of your Enlightenment* to know such things without Evidence.

          *or something.

          1. Well, of course there is no one way of reading a story, and anybody’s interpretation of it is valid, so actually knowing the context in which the tale was told is unimportant to our interpreting it today. That goes without saying.

            And this, children, is why people can see things in the Constitution that were never intended by those who actually, you know, wrote the thing.

          2. Actually, there’s a lot of Hawthorne that is about Elder Gods — or rather, that inspired Lovecraft. All that stuff about the scary forest and the scary animals and stuff, and all the stuff about Calvinists are scary. And being related to Judge Hawthorne was kind of a horror thing in itself, poor guy.

            OTOH, he was pretty positive about Greek gods. (Twice-Told Tales is sort of the Rewards and Fairies of Greek mythology retellings. Very much on a kid/fairy tale level.)

            1. Oh, crup. I meant The Wonder Book and Tanglewood Tales. Twice-Told Tales is his short story collection that’s all reprints from magazines (and includes the black veil story).

        2. Ayup. Diversity in skin color or sexual practices is good and to be encouraged. Diversity in thought or opinion is dangerous and evil and should be stomped out with big stomping boots.

          1. Selected sexual practices. Those that minimize the risk of STDs and maximize the danger to children are not welcome.

          2. You forgot that proper diversity is also celebrated in various festivals throughout the calendar year where we eat the prescribed ethnic/native foods, listen to the similarly appropriate music and mill around booths and tables shopping for quaint crafts.

            Oh, yes, and we find out that everyone everywhere somehow includes beer…

    2. blink, blink, blink

      How can one have hypocrisy without secret sin? Surely posing as more virtuous as you are is the pith and essence of hypocrisy? At the very least, one is lying about the views you actually hold, and typically, you are not obeying the higher views that you falsely profess.

      1. Well Mary, I believe CF was disagreeing with the idea that the *pastor* had a secret sin which was the reason for wearing the mask. I took it that CF’s idea was that wearing the mask was the pastor’s comment on the secret sins of the members of his church.

        1. But Moses wore a veil the rest of his life after seeing God, because the experience gave him “horns” according to some translations or a Shekhinah-glory sort of glowing face, according to others. So didn’t it imply that the minister’d also had a vision and his skin was glowing?

          I dunno, I haven’t read this story, but clearly Hawthorne is referencing Moses even if not using the original meaning. (Off to read story, possibly while listening to “The Long Black Veil”, which is a totally different thing.)

          1. Well, it sounds like Hawthorne was trying to make it about how we don’t dare to be honest with others or God about our sins, fears, etc. Indeed, he went a long way around the block to avoid referencing Moses, and to make sure you know about this historical guy he based it on. But it seems to be much more about mystery in general, really.

            I’m sure there’s some kind of Transcendentalism thing involved….

            Anyway, yet another story that makes you understand why his daughter Rose became Catholic, where you can go to Confession and make reparations, instead of traipsing around your whole life with a scarlet letter or a veil or some such.

          2. Haven’t read the story either, but why in this brave new world of interpretation should that stop me:

            obviously the minister, so aware of the town’s inclination to commit the sin of gossip decided to become a sacrificial object of interest to keep them from damaging each other…

            now I shall express this through the medium of interpretive dance…

            1. You shall dance to my interpretive singing (post modern style, of course). hummmmm *warming up the vocal cords Get ready for cat-screeching.

      2. Oh, it’s entirely possible to have hypocrisy without secret sin. It’s even possible to have hypocrisy without having views that you falsely profess. All it requires is a total lack of self-examination, coupled with a sense of in your own purity of purpose.

        I hate to use the Loony Left Liberals for examples all the time, but they have so many cases of this that it’s too easy. In this thread it has been mentioned that they will spout such things as “All interpretations are valid”, then attack one that doesn’t agree with them. The fact is, many of them actually BELIEVE that statement, yet CANNOT see when they are doing the same thing. Occasionally, when one of them does say something that is “off reservation”, and they get attacked by their own people, they will wake up and smell the hypocrisy, but not often, even then.

  26. Funny, I always heard it as “Old Age and treachery will beat youth and enthusiasm, every time.”

  27. I did not read Black Veil until recent years. My reaction was consistent with yours in high school, but more unformed and acerbic: the whole thing struck me as a shaggy dog story.

    “I, young Parson Hooper, have just realized that people are insincere. In witness of that shocking revelation, I vow to wear a black veil for the rest of my life.”

    Good grief.

    Ah, but the story is a metaphor, does someone say? Your superficial literalness ignores its depths.

    Yeah, yeah. The operative phrase is willing suspension of disbelief, and the operative word in that phrase is willing. And I ain’t.

  28. Hm. Starting to think that Hawthorne was making some kind of comment on sins being “covered,” as in 1 Peter 4:8 (KJV) – “And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins.” And Proverbs 17:9 – “He that covereth a transgression seeketh love; but he that repeateth a matter separateth very friends.”

    Shrug. It’s a weird Twilight Zonish story.

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