A book like Alice
Much, I am sure, to the vexation of the various juvenile canid haters, I was not carried away by an inflammation of the lungs this last week.
And it is a base canard to imply I was as sick as a dog. You’d have put down the dog as a kindness. (Yes, I have been reading Heyer again).
I was pretty crook, all-in-all. I’m not someone who takes to bed. I was a sick little kid and spent far too much of my youth confined to bed, telling myself stories. I’ve never spent more than half a day actually in a sick-bed since, not because I haven’t been sick, but because I’d rather be doing, even if it’s cling to things to keep upright. This last week I actually voluntarily took to bed for a few hours. Let’s put it this way: I’ve got an inkling as to why heroin was welcomed as a miracle drug for TB sufferers. Coughing a lot hurts (and I am an expert on this, with a lifetime’s experience). Anyway: we’re now trying yet another antibiotic, and there is a little improvement. I thought the whole point of getting pneumonia instead of the common cold was that you could treat pneumonia.
But coherent writing was a big ask. Sleeping was not on the cards, and nor was any kind of complex research reading.
It was comfort book time. Time for old friends. Heyer (I re-read ‘THE CORINTHIAN’), Diana Wynne Jones… I ended up re-reading Neville Shute’s ‘A TOWN LIKE ALICE’.
Heh. I can see our puppykicker friends breaking out the champagne already. “Ok, so he didn’t die. But we’ve finally got evidence he’s a raycisss and sexisss. We couldn’t find it in his books but he likes A TOWN LIKE ALICE. That’s full of sexist racist etc. etc.
Indeed. It’s ALSO full of late 1950 (the book was published in 1961). Like the Heyer, it is reasonably accurate in its reflection of the mores of its time. It is, when you factor when it was written, far, far less intolerant, sexist or racist than the stuff that got published by Tor or any of the other major Trad Publishing houses last year. A dispassionate alien reviewing the work would definitely see that. The reason is easy: No race, religion, group or culture or sex is singled out as wholly bereft of good, or uniformly evil or villainous. They’re portrayed as different, as individuals, some kind, some cruel, some operating according to values within their culture – but the author merely wrote them according to his perception, and didn’t add a judgement of values into it. That’s a lot more tolerant than modern fiction.
I’m sure that the average puppy-kicker would, however, accuse Shute of homophobia.
You see, there were no overtly homosexual characters. Not surprising in wartime Malaysia, in principally Muslim society, or even in the outback of Northern Queensland of 1950 (the book was set as starting about then). There would, no doubt, have been homosexuals. But it wasn’t obligatory then for them to be in every story, or to be heroes. In fact, of course, the author was just writing about reality. Overt homosexuality wasn’t common and in a Muslim society, or the rural outback, and had some nasty consequences if it was.
“But he should have written about that!”
“Because… because it would have been the right thing to do. He was a homophobe!”
Ah. The ‘if you didn’t address whatever our cause du jour is, long before it was a cause du jour, or we, or most of your readers even thought it important, you’re guilty’ fallacy. If I had a time machine to look into the future I’d probably… who am I kidding? Like the rest of you I’d see who won horse-races and what the right Lottery numbers to pick were. And if we could all do it, that would be worthless too.
Today’s books will suffer same ‘flaw’ – guaranteed. Why not save time and trouble and condemn them in advance? (Yes, it is that stupid and illogical. But the average SJW is.).
On the other hand, you might do something constructive with your time instead, and consider why this book sold millions of copies, why – despite being ‘not PC’ it continues to sell and be popular. As a writer, that’s important. For the record, it’s not my favorite Shute – that would go to “A FAR COUNTRY” which is about a Czech Doctor who served in the German army WW2 who is a post-war refugee, resettled in Australia, doing his obligatory time in a logging camp, a logging accident, and a man and a young woman choosing to do what has to be done – for someone else to whom they owe nothing – and which risks their hard-won safety. The book has much I identify with and agree with. I find a huge amount to identify with in the hero –and love about the heroine. If I’m not like that, that’s kind of who I’d like to be. It’s aspiration as well as identification.
That aspiration part is pretty important to readers – and is so often forgotten. The other aspect of course, is that it’s all a numbers game. We’re told, endlessly, that various little groups want their own ‘voices’ want to feel that they identify with the characters. That is perfectly true, even if it doesn’t stop me enjoying a book set in the Regency around members of the upper ten thousand, with whom I have little in common. But yes, it’s why I enjoy A TOWN LIKE ALICE, or A FAR COUNTRY. I have characters with similar values, interests, background and outlook to my own. Yes, the stories and settings are dated. But the people appeal. In general they’re solid, decent, kindly, generous people. People I’ve met and people I know.
I don’t begrudge the urban hipster gender-queer their books, their characters, who have values, interests, background and outlook which are quite different from mine. Just as I don’t live in Regency England or share much with the way of life in Heyer’s books but I still enjoy them, I might enjoy something well-written by someone I can’t identify with, with an alien outlook on life to mine. But you’re winning on points before I even look at the quality of the writing and caliber of the story if you’ve given me people and aspirations I can identify with.
Where everything falls apart in publishing, is that math is too hard, Barbie. You see they’ve been so busy catering for all these minorities, catching all these ‘new’ audiences… that they’ve lost sight of the numbers. What these new audiences want, often, was alienating to the old audience – which was at least 60% of the reading population – up to 95% in my ‘flyover country’ type of places. Actually these ‘new audiences’ often enjoyed nothing more than straight out denigration of the old. If you like, that was ‘aspirational’ to them.
The trouble with this is that the audience they stood to gain… was often a lot smaller than the one they had to lose to gain it. I’m kinda tempted to propose a new scale based on how many Star Wars Fans Chuck Wendig had to alienate to gain those outside the franchise’s fandom. I’d guess he was losing about a hundred for every one gained. So the author who came out as conservative to her largely left wing audience and lost 10 for every one she gained would have scale rating of a deci-wen. And the author who made 1000 for losing one would have a scale of 10 anti-wen…
The bottom line is that catering for small market segments – especially if you have a lot of competition for space in that segment, equals small sales. And while I’m all for them having books they identify with, if you’re going to run a profitable traditional publishing enterprise, you’re going to have to have a lot of books for people who come close to the median. You know, the standard villains of modern publishing. They deserve their own books just as much as the PoC or Gender-queer do. And that would PAY. And realistically if you’re going follow Penguin UK’s policy (It says new authors should reflect the UK population by 2025, “taking into account ethnicity, gender, sexuality, social mobility and disability”). I suspect they really, really haven’t thought this one through (math is too hard, Barbie) as an accurate reflection is going to have less books by selected minorities in proportion to how many there are of them. I mean ‘Heterosexual, vanilla, white’ actually really is most of the population. And yes, it’d work… if they reflected their politics, religion and culture, proportionally too. I think they thought noise equaled numbers. As this petition shows – as opposed to the loud shrieking harpy one demanding that the ConCarolinas chair be cast out into utter darkness for daring to not obey and ban wrongthinkers on the whim of the harpies – which has attracted a handful of signatures, some anonymous and mostly to heckle, perhaps 50 actual supporters — noise and PC status does not equal numbers. Not in this, and not in sales.