Flinch Training

In our polarized world, we are facing a constant onslaught of messages. From the practical of ‘look both ways before you cross the street‘ to the insane gaslighting of ‘glyphosate causes cancer‘ we’re bombarded at every turn. It’s on the news, on the internet, and in our fiction. We can’t escape it, it seems.

My Dad adopted a dog a few years ago while I was still living with him on the Farm. The young dog he’d adopted was about a year old, and a farm collie (appropriately enough), and he was a rescue dog. That last part was the problematic bit. You see, Wade had been born and raised on a farm down South somewhere, with his big dog family, and one little old man. When the man died, the dogs were left alone, roaming the farm, lost and confused. Then the rescuers arrived, and Wade’s trauma began. My Dad, talking to the rescuers, was told that it took them days to chase and trap the dogs, only a few would allow themselves to be caught easily. Finally they were all rounded up, taken to the vet, given their shots, neutered, and dispersed in cars and planes to their new homes. On the surface, this sounds like a great thing, right? But look at it from Wade’s perspective. He’d been ripped away from his pack, hunted down, trapped, tortured, and transported. Little wonder when the poor guy finally made it to the Farm in NH he was a nervous wreck. The only person he’d allow near him was my Dad. Women were TEH EVUL and I only ever got to pet him twice, both times with him shaking and trying to hide under the safe male. I’d be willing to bet good money – and I’m not a gambler – that his ‘rescuers’ were all women.

I’m am sure, that like animal rescues everywhere, they had the best of intentions. These dogs would not be healthy in the long run without their dead owner. But the outcome of their efforts was a dog who was traumatized and who would flinch whenever someone who looked like (and smelled like) his tormentors came too close. Humans can have this reaction, too. And it’s not just the involuntary twitch of someone who has experienced a violent hand laid on them. It’s a mental thing, too. We’ve been trained to flinch away from certain stimuli. In my opening paragraph, both examples are trained responses: hesitate before stepping onto a road, and ‘chemicals are TUH EVUL.’ One is a good, safe, normal response. The other is the trained flinch instilled by an abuser (of the truth, not physical in this case).

That flinch response isn’t entirely conscious. We can choose to recover from the flinch and allow the kind hand to pat us. Or, in the case of this post, we can look beyond the first chapter of a book that provokes that cringe, and discover a good story we quite enjoy. But why? When there are so many other books out there in the world that promise quality entertainment without flashbacks to people who hurt us, why would an author choose to front-load their book with virtue-signalling and message when that’s not what the book is about at all?

This came up over a review of a book that a friend and fellow author, Michael A. Rothman had read and posted on social media. I’m quoting extensively from him, because he says it very well, and I’ll point out here that he does have some books you should check out – because he does write well! I’ve redacted a name, since I didn’t have permission to share that part. It still works.

I think [the flinch] reaction/question is not uncommon.

Take the book that my post is about, it has quite a few one-star reviews that mostly have a single theme. They in essence match the reaction [flinching] had.

To me, my criticism of this book, which really isn’t a criticism so much as a “I’d do it a bit differently” thought.

Instead of introducing what I know would be an ideologically polarizing element in the beginning of the book, I’d have tried to introduce it later.

Why later?

Well, mostly in the beginning you haven’t earned the trust of the reader. As much as possible you want them to get involved before you piss in their ideological punch bowl.

I can almost guarantee that most of those one-star types didn’t read past the second or third chapter.

To me, it’s about getting a reader hooked and as an author, you know what audiences will find challenging.

I personally don’t try to challenge them ideologically too much up front.

It’s about avoiding [the flinching] reaction or the reaction of the one-stars.

The review that provoked the comment and led to Michael’s response was, in part, this:

I often go to a book’s one-star reviews, not to dissuade or entice me, but to see what naysayers have to say. Sometimes a book has a couple nonsensical one stars that are ignorable idiocy that reads more on the reviewer than the writer, but sometimes they hit on something.

In this case I immediately noticed a bunch of butt-hurt conservatives squawking about the book hating religion or somesuch nonsense.

Note: I’m a conservative, so my curiosity was piqued. Dennis had obviously tweaked some of the religious right.

I started reading and immediately began chuckling. Aside from the first chapter or so that serves as more of a prologue to the rest of the story, the initial antagonist is a future government that’s imagined as a theocracy – think Spanish Inquisition, with tech.

Ya, I can see why people got their noses bent on it, because it did make the right wing sort of the initial enemy. However, the story has really nothing to do with it. It’s just how it kicked off and I think those people simply stopped reading and lost out on a remarkable tale.


The problem that Michael was highlighting is that even an excellent book can fall victim to the trauma inflicted by the heavy message fiction on the reader. And the reader is going to be thrown out of the story, and put down the book to walk away and avoid that author forever after. Am I saying that authors should never have, say, a lesbian main character oppressed by the patriarchy who is then given the opportunity to put her boot on the patriarchal symbol in her life? Not really. I’m saying that if the author chooses to lead with that, and make their character defined by her sexuality and gender, he should be prepared to see some readers flinching away from his work, and choosing not only to avoid his story, but to talk about it. Because very few people choose to indulge in exposure therapy with their escapist fiction. What they want is a literal escape from the bombardment of messages in their life. A time where they don’t want to have to flinch away from the approaching stimulus because it’s associated indelibly in their brain with pain.

I can’t tell you how many people I have talked to in my life who say that they don’t read. Sometimes, specifically, they are talking about not reading science fiction and fantasy. They started avoiding it, sometimes unconsciously, because it made them flinch. On a deep level, they had been conditioned to give up a harmless pleasure. Some people stopped reading because their school teachers forced ‘literature’ down their throats when they were children, and helpless to do anything but obey or fail a class. Little wonder they flinch away from books. It’s a trained response, and overcoming that lack of trust takes a lot of time, some willingness on the part of the reader to push past a first chapter that invokes the flinch response, and some willingness on the author to understand that they can’t just rush up to an abused dog and not have it snap at them.

91 thoughts on “Flinch Training

  1. I can understand why the ‘literature’ children are forced to read in school can turn them off of reading, if that’s been their only exposure to reading. I am very thankful that I had already learned to enjoy reading for pleasure before I encountered that drek. But I’ve had a similar response to books I’ve read recently, and stopped reading because the author pushed some of my buttons early on (or just failed to make their characters and story engaging enough for me to overlook the button-pushing later on). And I’ve read some really good stories with excellent characterization that pushed a lot of buttons for me but were such good stories other-wise that I was able to keep reading.

    1. I am deeply glad that Kid is already a reader. Because her English class this year is going to be centered around Hamlet, Oedipus Rex, and To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s bad when MOCKINGBIRD is your cheerful, light reading…

        1. *cackle* Reminds me of watching “Where the Red Fern Grows” in middle school with my cousin. He sobbed his way out of the auditorium, going “It’s a true story, isn’t it? They always DIE when it’s a true story!!”

          Planning on reading Hamlet aloud to help her at least enjoy it. The teacher is one of those “all good literature is dreary” sorts (thankfully canceled out by awesome history teacher and manic science teacher), but my guard is most thoroughly up.

    2. English class managed to put me off books that I had read and liked before doing them in class, and managed to read and like (long) after doing them in class. At the time?

      1. I’ve said before that being assigned Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn put me off Twain for some time. The folks watching an adaptation of Life on the Mississippi didn’t help any, either. And then, I saw an adaptation of, of all things, Mysterious Stranger and that spoke to me and I started reading Twain – to the point that the short stories one class were even looked forward to, rather than dreaded. And I read almost everything Twain the local library had, with three exceptions. Yup, those three. I found it interesting to read all three version of ‘Mysterious Stranger’ and see what all changed over time and rewrite.

    3. Not only are we forced to read that litewrachuur, we’re forced to read it at the pace of the slowest reader in the class, often out loud, and then do BS analyses on it based on what someone assigned the meanings of every little thing in the book to ten or twenty or even a hundred years after the book was written. BS analysis like the author’s mention of a half-empty cup of tea in the parlor scene isn’t just because its completely appropriate to the setting but it has important significance to the character who the cup belongs to (blah blah blah….)

      Yeahhh, i took a few of those classes. Even college level ones… my Script Analysis class in college had us going through Aristolte’s Poetics as reference even tho the instructor never referred to it or asked about it… talk about a slog…

      1. Lit would be more interesting if one could engage in TV Tropes styled Wild Mass Guessing and “Fan Theories” that they come up with themselves, instead of getting fed the official line from the teacher’s edition.

        1. In freshman college lit I turned the tables on the prof and went all Joseph Campbell and Frazier on “King Lear,” looking at the medieval animal symbology in the epithets given each character and so on. 99% BS, I’m probably sure, but she wasn’t familiar with the sources I found and she loved it.

    4. I am also deeply grateful that I was a reader long before I hit the “Lit-er-a-CHOOR” end of things in high school. Grateful that I’d already read and liked The Hobbit and LOTR before an idiotic ninth grade English teacher attempted to ruin them. Grateful I’d read and liked Jane Eyre before all the literary criticism crap got shoved down my throat about it. And SUPER grateful that they never touched Jane Austen at all, and I got to discover and enjoy her all on my own.

  2. I think the last fiction book I “walled” in chapter one had that problem. I’d gotten it from the library out of morbid curiosity, because the jacket blurb made me go “Huh? This will be either really good or a disaster,” and it was disaster from page two on. Too much message, no real introduction to the characters, and while the world-building could have been good… it was sacrificed to message. No thanks.

    1. That’s the sad bit – otherwise great authors expend their efforts in writing ‘correct’ messages instead of getting lost in the worlds they created and writing the stories that happen there, instead of forcing the stories they feel like they ‘ought’ to be writing.

    2. Sounds like Ancillary Pronouns, I bought it, couldn’t get past chapter 2, I gave it away to a friend and after 3 tries, she could only manage to the end of chapt. 2, she gave it away, to someone who actually enjoys message fic, she used it to start the fire pit in her back yard, then belated said “you didn’t want that back, did you?”

        1. That alone is amazing, but that that person couldn’t stand it to the point of ridding the world of copy? That’s one ZORCH! of a review, right there, that is.

        2. ‘Tis a good thing we don’t all like the same things. Think of the haggis shortage. 😉

      1. I literally binned Ancillary Noun as soon as I read far enough to find out what an “ancillary” was. Really not going to read about that.

        I might have read about the almighty war to destroy them all, to the last atom, but that wasn’t Ancillary Noun. Totally business-as-usual that travesty got a f-ing Hugo. Same deal with Jemesin’s Stone Soup series, it is utterly appropriate that she got three Hugos for that. Its three times more objectionable than Ancillary Whatsit.

        Dr. Mauser has an excellent blog post on this subject. https://drmauser.wordpress.com/2018/06/28/fizzle/

        He’s talking about a story that Cat Rambo appears to have written mostly as an excuse to take backhand shots at Conservatives. A short story full of little digs, disgusting characters and missed opportunities. Generally characterized as liberals treating each other horribly.

        That’s really what finally got me writing instead of reading. It may end up that I’m the only one who likes what’s on the page, like Empress Teresa, but its better than reading snide hipster crap written by pink-haired cat ladies.

  3. In short fiction, I don’t see very many stories pushing a message (probably because space is tight), but those that do will often stick just a couple of lines in the middle apropos of nothing. It’s almost like an ad. If it only happens once, I don’t usually ding them for that, but it does annoy me. (Editors should make them delete these–or charge them for ad space.)

    Of course a lot depends on what you think of as message. I appreciate it when an author tells me that this character is gay, that character is black, and the other one is Catholic because it helps me tell them apart–even if they’re all tokens. Stories with three-dimensional minority characters can be very strong, but they don’t usually include the sort of lectures to the reader that would make them into message fiction.

    Likewise, if a story set in 2100 involves a flooded city, that’s not message fiction in my book. It becomes message fiction if a paragraph is devoted to lamenting the idiots who didn’t do something about CO2 before it was too late.

    If you can suspend disbelief for a story where an evil genie magically turns the ocean into lime jello, you ought to be able to suspend disbelief for a story where it turns out you were wrong about something you believe in. It’s definitely a mistake to read with a chip on your shoulder, finding messages where none exists. We are not dogs. We can train ourselves not to flinch.

    1. You are quite correct that we are not dogs. But personally I don’t want to view reading as aversion therapy. When I am reading to change my worldview, I’m reading non-fiction and looking to learn from evidence, not from my fiction where the beliefs of the author might not be based on anything close to reality – and I’m not talking about oceanic lime jello. If you haven’t been seeing message fiction in short fiction, I’m wondering what you’ve been reading, because I’ve seen it many, many times. And that’s not always a bad thing, by the way. Story with a message can be good, and well-done. But all too often it’s not. It’s preachy, and coming from a woman who grew up attending church three times a week if not more, I know a sermon when I read it.

      1. There’s actually a good YA novella that I would cheerfully recommend for two reasons: It’s a very good story, with a positive message. (To the oblivious: NOTE THE ORDER IN WHICH I LIST THE GOOD THINGS.)

        Matthew Reilly’s Troll Mountain.

      2. As for what I’m reading, I read and review about 800 works of original short fiction (under 50,000 words) per year. That’s all the original short fiction in of Analog, Apex, Asimov’s, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, F&SF, Interzone, Lightspeed, Tor.com, and Uncanny as well as about a dozen original anthologies per year and all of the Tor novellas. That amounts to about 5.5 million words a year–roughly the equivalent of a novel per week. I’ve done this for four years now (give or take), so I think I’ve got a pretty good perspective on what’s actually getting published these days.


        Maybe the big distinction is between what I think of as deliberately planting a message vs. a “message” that’s only there because of the author’s unconscious assumptions. The latter might still ruin the story for me (e.g. the author who firmly believes the human race is bad and the world would be a better place without us is unlikely to ever get more than two stars from me), but I don’t count that as message fiction. Not unless a character (or the narrator) takes the time to lecture us on the topic.

        Otherwise you’re going to end up arguing that everything is message fiction, even if the “message” is just that “honorable success only comes from honesty and hard work” or “it would be cool to explore the universe.”

        1. Greg, we’ve been lenient with you about linking to your site what seems like every time you comment here. However, not once that any of us recall have you asked permission to do so. Please, cease doing so. If you want to direct our readers to your site, then link it to your avatar. Thanks.

          1. Sorry. I didn’t realize you had a rule against it. (Or or process for asking permission.)

            Does it make any difference that the site is non-monetized? (That is, no fees, no ads, no affiliate links, and no appeals for donations.) It’s meant to be a useful resource to fans of short fiction.

            Also, although I’ll admit I went through a period of finding every excuse to link to it, over the past couple of years, I like to think I’ve only linked to it to answer someone’s direct question.

            With your permission, then, I’d like to make links to it, when it really does answer someone’s question. If not, just let me know, and I won’t do it again.

        2. Greg I have warned you before about linking to your own material without prior permission. And that means every single time. We hold EVERYBODY bar the actual members of MGC to that rule. This is not a ‘self promotion’ site. You’ve been told, you’ve been warned off twice now. You keep pushing because there must be a special exception for you…. No. Got it? No. Not now, not ever in the future.

    2. Furthermore, I suspect you missed the point about abuse victims altogether. I’d suggest you check your privilege, but, *shrugs* I’m actually happy you are oblivious about what it’s like to have endured that. Go you.

      1. I’m a gay man who came out of the closet at age 15 in 1975 in Chattanooga, Tennessee while attending a Christian boy’s prep school. I know all about abuse.

        1. Then you get the flinch. So I have to wonder why you think it’s ok for the conditioning that causes that reaction to continue? This is far beyond ‘concepts in stories that make the reader think/feel uncomfortable’ into ‘make the reader feel like their existence is unworthy and they are evil no matter what’.

          1. Oh sure. Sometimes you have to fight.

            For example, essentially all gay characters in movies up to “Basic Instinct” were portrayed as either disgusting, dangerous, or both. Just not watching movies at all would be one way to react to that. Or writing articles to complain. But to make a real change, took a lot more than that.

            I was part of the effort to protest “Basic Instinct” in San Francisco. We knew that merely by protesting it, we’d give it free publicity, but we decided that was a fair trade off for getting our message out. The protests were a huge effort, involving work by hundreds of people (thousands if you count the ones who just showed up at events) over a whole year. It was also the only time in my life I was ever assaulted by the police. (Not as big a deal as it sounds: they knocked me off my feet because I stepped over an invisible line I didn’t know about.) It was quite an adventure for a young computer nerd, and I’m proud I was part of it.

            Sure enough, the movie was a smash hit, but it was also the last of its kind. After that, directors had trouble getting actors to agree to be in movies that had gay characters in those sorts of roles. This was critical since, as a very small minority, we had no hope of success without earning the sympathy and support of the mainstream.

            So, yes, sometimes just flinching and enduring it is not the correct response. But you need to pick your battles carefully because putting up an effective resistance is a lot of work and subjects you to more abuse than you’d take just by being silent.

            1. Greg Hullender said: “But you need to pick your battles carefully because putting up an effective resistance is a lot of work and subjects you to more abuse than you’d take just by being silent.”

              There was a thing on Drudge yesterday about a Youtuber, Blair White, who said coming out as trans was less traumatic than coming out as Conservative. https://womenintheworld.com/2018/08/24/republican-transgender-youtuber-takes-on-notions-of-identity-both-political-and-sexual/
              That’s the level of poisonous atmosphere at play.

              We’re nerds. We like nerdy shit that the Normies don’t bother with. Who would have thought that Leftists would come and take away our super hero comics, our dorky Star Wars movies and our weirdo science fiction books?

              But they fucking well did.

              So really, we didn’t pick this battle Greg. They came after -us-. I’m not inclined to back off one tiny bit. There’s no middle ground.

              Read that Dr. Mauser link I put in above. He gives chapter and verse. That is the Flinch Factor, laid out in exquisite detail. Then maybe have a comb through those 800 stories you read this year, and think about how many authors took cheap shots at Trump, or buying Gold, or marriage, or all that stuff Lefties like to project onto other people.

              For that matter just count up pointless tortures and murders. That alone will put me off a book pretty fricking fast.

              1. There comes a point when one ceases to care and just wishes to swing an oversized ax(e) around Be Done With It. Or, for modern humans, nuke it ’til it glows and hunt it in the dark.. and Be Done With It.

                Now, I don’t particularly mind a message in the text, but it’s NOT the reason (or at least not the obvious reason) for the text. There must be story. And story comes FIRST is the message gets lost in story for a while… well, it does. It can percolate out later. Message first, uber Story? Text, meet wall – or: message.txt > /dev/null if you prefer.

                1. I ran up the Jolly Roger in 1992 when Canada went Full Retard on gun control. Its been there ever since, right on top of the flagpole. Lately I’ve been flying the Official Sarah Hoyt middle-fingers-salute flag right under it.

                  1. Which I started flying when we became the worstest thing ever because we suggested that maybe, perhaps, the cultural gatekeepers are biased against anyone to the right of Lenin.

                    1. That’s what I’m saying. If I’m already Literally Hitler!!1!, then I’m going to be literally Hitler on full fucking afterburner.

                      Look out below, bitchez.

  4. On that look both ways thing. As Americans we look left then right. A Brit will naturally look right then left. I’ve seen a few authors use this bit of trivia to good effect as a twist to their story.

    1. I still remember the Chesterton story where a policeman was lecturing a friend about detection and observed that while your Sherlock Holmes detective might realize a man was foreign based on which he checked first, a policeman might not realize it, but he’d be likely to know because when the man moved to the neighborhood, he’d asked about a bit about him, and people told him he was foreign.

    2. I almost walked in front of a car in London because intersection was one-way – but traffic was flowing “backwards” so I looked the wrong way.

  5. Dog ‘rescues’ LIE. You can count on absolutely nothing about that dog’s purported history being true; it’s all made up to jerk tears and open wallets (donations far outstrip ‘adoption fees’). I have firsthand experience of the lies they tell, I have the reason in writing FROM a ‘reputable’ rescue, and I’ve been through the IRS filings for a bunch of ‘rescues’. They are by far the most profitable segment in the entire pet industry. (When you view their IRS documents, be aware that “administrative expenses” is charity-speak for “owner’s salary”. I have yet to see one under $50k, and typically it’s more like $150k. As a friend’s accountant put it, if you want to make real money in dogs, you need to start a ‘rescue’. This is why in California, where we have some stats on this, there are actually more rescues than breeders.)

    Presently the rescue industry imports somewhere upward of 300,000 dogs per year (in 2007, CDC’s estimate was 270,000 and it’s only gone up), mostly from third world hellholes, but increasingly puppies are bred and imported for the sole purpose of being sold BY rescues — who hawk them as “saved from a terrible puppy mill” (using photos of meat market dogs in Korea). And then it lobbies, with considerable success, to get domestic breeders shut down, because ‘pet overpopulation’ and ‘abuse’. The mob doesn’t like competition. Meanwhile, we get third world parasites and occasional imports with active rabies (I know of at least one such rabid ‘rescue’ that bit a child), and good-hearted but unwitting people get saddled with behavioral problems that should have gone in the ground, and guilted into believing it’s their own fault if things don’t work out. (Two such ‘rescue’ dogs have killed someone within 24 hours of being ‘adopted’. Rescues are presently about 18% of the pet population, but — CDC numbers again — commit 50% of the serious bites.)

    Speaking as a professional trainer with 45+ years and around 3000 dogs worth of experience, a “flinchy” (or otherwise weird) dog was born that way, not made that way. It’s actually quite difficult to abuse a normal dog into a permanent behavior (you might manage it with an electric collar and a sensitive dog; even then, rattlesnake-proofing — which is basically burning the dog to make it terrified of snakes — usually has to be repeated annually). And it takes a lot more than a brief incident; normal dogs recover from any sort of trauma (even ongoing trauma) within at most a few months, and normal puppies recover within days. Failure to recover is actually due to a broken brain chemical (and the gene for this has been ID’d in humans) that fails to take out the stress garbage, so it builds up and causes permanently stressy behavior (and occasional overstressed episodes).

    The pet rescue industry is WAY ahead of everyone else when it comes to pulling SJW-type scams on the public; in fact, the ‘refugee’ importation business is merely copying their established practice, and the SJWs’ demonization of writers like our MGC cohort is very much like rescues’ demonization of dog breeders in America. Yeah, I’m ranting, but ‘rescue’ purposefully destroying the competition is why I wound up starting over from nothing at age 60, and I’m very tired of well-meaning people accepting the rescue mantra as fact, when it’s no more factual than the horseshit that SJWs spew about conservatives, and when you get down to the people who actually run things, has the same root motivation: Follow the money.

    Don’t believe me? Look up John Stossel’s 20/20 segment entitled “Cruelty to Owners”, which barely scratches the surface.

    1. So I guess the good news is that you can teach an old dog new tricks, but the bad news is that you have to do that because dogs will forget their old tricks? 🙂

    2. We got a rescue dog. He was picked up around Monterrey. We met him and he pretty quickly decided he wanted to go home with us. He was scared of people in uniforms. He got used to me wearing mine fairly quickly.

    3. I’ve thought for a long time that most of the bad dog behavior which is blamed by ‘rescue’ people on abusive former owners was actually probably the reason why the dogs were given up in the first place. You have just confirmed that — and I did not know about the ‘rescue’ industry importing all of those dogs from foreign countries. That is beyond stupid. A lot of the so-called abuse in the livestock industry is also terribly overblown by ‘rescue’ people, who have actually created and photographed situations to support their contentions when they couldn’t find any real-life examples.

      1. Yeah, I’ve heard some terrible stuff about today’s rescue dog organizations, and even about rescue horse organizations.

        It doesn’t make it bad to adopt a rescue dog, but it does mean you have to do research.

        In our family’s case, we live down the road a few miles from the lady who used to run Irish Wolfhound rescue, so we knew what was going on. But that’s a case of a relatively small (in numbers!) breed with a small breed organization. There are other organizations that offer less reputable rescue.

        Two of our rescue dogs came to us with serious problems (one had jumped partway through a basement window and was all cut up, another had been wandering lost along the highway with a collar too tight for his growth and his ribs showing), and another had been in an actual puppy mill and didn’t understand that doors opened. (The fourth one was not properly a rescue; she was just sent back to the breeder for being too rambunctious; and we gave her a home.) As the gentleman says, all the dogs recovered pretty quickly, got housetrained, and got good manners. Other than a couple with bad digestions, they didn’t have much in the way of health problems, and they were plenty safe and sane to be around.

        In today’s world, it’s probably safer to adopt from a shelter, or to do the normal thing and find a reputable breeder.

      2. Which is why I adopt from local animal shelters. My gravitar was brought in with a choke collar embedded in her neck, and it did damage to her vocal cords and thyroid.

    4. I should note that I didn’t know Wade long – I moved out before he’d lived with us long enough to recover. Also, it wasnt’ just me, it was any female he encountered, where he’d let a male (like my First Reader, who was allowed to pat him on first meeting) get closer. So I still think that it was a conditioned response, because Dad reported that he’d improved immensely after some time and care. I know that in most dog’s cases, they forget after about three months.

  6. I had the same reaction to I Am Legion. It wasn’t even so much the Conservative Christians were the villains of the book, it was that they weren’t remotely believable villains. The author just threw all the negative stereotypes he’d ever heard into a pot without trying to make the society make sense.

    1. I’ve seen a number of books like this. It really doesn’t matter who they want to make into a villain as long as they make it believable, but I suspect that some of these authors have so little real-life experience with the kinds of people they villainize that they CAN’T make believable characters out of them. So all they have that they can use is the left-wing stereotypes.

      1. yep, especially people doing grunt work in the entertainment biz in CA. They’ve never actually *met* conservative Christians other than in passing, certainly don’t actually know any, and thus their image of them is built entirely from media portrayals. (or, from what they learned in history class in high school…)

    2. That’s something… it’s one thing to lie about me. I rather expect that. (Hey, fiction, right?) but doing it poorly? That would annoy me no end.

    3. Then again, there’s some times where the reality is worse than the stereotype.
      For instance, notorious Lake County Florida Sheriff Willis McCall was every single “corrupt, racist southern lawman” stereotype turned up to 11. See “Devil in the Grove” or “Beneath a Ruthless Sun” for more details.

      Yet, talk to people who actually knew him, and the books and news stories about him fall short of the reality of the man.

          1. Quite possibly, in this sense I meant “Can’t tell some really interesting stories because they’re too out there.” On the order of the Audie Murphy movie, written by Audie Murphy… who toned it down because the audience wouldn’t believe the reality. (And he played himself, one of the major complaints? “Audie Murphy couldn’t be that short, they should have cast a taller actor.”)

  7. This might explain my lack of reading this year, I just encountered too many books from too many authors and too many publishers that were all saying the same thing in the first few chapters and now am reluctant to take a chance. I flinched.

    If there’s a male lead? In the first few chapters a female character must give them their comeuppance. I’m sure the writers of those books would say it’s their attempt at ‘humanizing’ the lead, or say something about a ‘redemption’ arc but neither make sense. That kind of ‘humanizing’ generally makes me think less of the MC as a man, as for ‘redemption’? Sometimes women are right, being wrong in front of a woman is not something you need to be redeemed for, it’s just normal (just like being wrong in front of other men. Humans are wrong all the time).

    That said, I know it’s a lie. Because if it’s a female lead they will have the female lead give a male character their comeuppance. Apparently, female characters don’t need ‘humanizing’ or ‘redemption’. If it’s a writing rule that this needs to be done in the first few chapters then it would be there the same way for both sexes as it would ‘benefit’ female characters just as much as it ‘benefits’ male characters. As it does not I believe it to be naked ideological bias on the part of writers and publishers.

    The worst part? I think it’s invisible to them. That what I’m addressing is so much the new normal that it would strike them as strange if someone were not to include that kind of thing. Lobsters in the pot don’t realize how hot the water is getting and I think these publishers and writers simply don’t realize how far left they’ve gone.

    As for gay characters? I don’t think they’re badly done these days, I think they obviously should be in books as they exist in the world. That said, they don’t need to be in every book, and are often far over-represented to a ridiculous degree. In adventure fiction you have roughly five characters at most who matter (hero, villain, love interest, complication, sidekick), so who do you designate as gay? The hero? Limits the audience. Villain? Ooh, that’s a live wire, have fun. Love interest? How would that work? Complication (usually alternate love interest for MC or for the love interest)? Removes the complication. Sidekick? Overdone cliché, so a live wire, so have fun.

    What usually happens is the expansion of the story to include characters that don’t need to be there and a story that would be an adventure story at its core becomes an epic. Nothing wrong with an epic, but when you’re looking for an adventure story, and the story being described on the back is an adventure story, and it starts out as an adventure story, you know you’ve got an incipient epic on your hands when you run into the extraneous characters that, because they’re gay or trans or something, have to have a story arc (otherwise they’re just background characters and that’s not Representation tm). Which adds complication, length, padding, and takes away something from the primary story, usually by having those extraneous characters do something at the end to help solve the problem. But not by sacrificing themselves. No, no. That would be wrong too. No, they have to do something awesome. Which sounds fine, except the main character is supposed to do something awesome at the end. Two awesome things don’t stack well on each other and will often diminish both awesome things to the level of two cool things.

    Basically, because of the politics of the writers and publishers they limit the paths a book, or a character, can go down which makes the story less possibly interesting. If you’re an observant reader, and you encounter those characters, you know the limited paths they can go down and you just wait for it to be revealed with no possibility of surprise or the moment of true singular awesome that you’ve been reading for.

    Also, coming back to flinching, almost every time I’ve encountered a gay character in a novel the writer has gone out of their way to tell me so in an overt way. Usually by the gay dude talking about the dude they hooked up with last night. This strikes me as odd. The kind of thing guys might talk about when they’re 18 but would be wildly out of place coming from a grown man. In all my life I think I’ve met two adult males who told me they got laid last night. And every time, when they leave the room, the other guys and me make fun of them. Partly, this is a function of writerly expedience, partly stereotyping, and partly I think it’s because a lot of writers are female and don’t actually know what men do and do not talk about with other men. Why would they think we talk about sex with each other a lot? Because we talk about sex with them a lot. So as to get sex.

    These, and other markers, also tell me something about the author: Namely that the author is likely to include a ‘Left-wing sucker punch’ (trademark Sarah A. Hoyt, I think) at some point in the story and I end up reading with narrowed, suspicious eyes (metaphorically) and that kind of reserve isn’t conducive to a good reading experience even if that sucker punch never comes (though it almost always does). Those on the left don’t seem to notice those sucker punches and when they’re pointed out say it’s a good thing that (for example) a sixth century A.D. novel about lost Roman Centurions must have a passage on Environmentalism and how awful it is that they don’t conserve and if they don’t change their ways a massive change to the weather (climate) will come, dooming all of Rome in the future.

    So, yeah, I flinch a bit. But not in a shy way, but with a narrowed eye and a low growl in the back of my throat. Not every book is like that, but so many are that I don’t think my reaction is unwarranted.


    1. There’s an otherwise wonderful history of the 10th century that has two “the editor made me stuff this in here so here it is” chunks, one about homosexuality and one about climate change. The women-in-the-church bits were done more gracefully.

      There were homosexuals in the 900s. And the climate was cooler then but was getting warmer [No, not AGW, Mr. Editor, Medieval Warm Period, Duh]. The problem was that these chunks were just jammed into the text, obviously because some editor said “Oh, you must talk about modern causes!” Um, no, not unless it has something to do with the story. Especially in a history book about the politics and mentalité of the 900s. Sheesh.

    2. Still remember the story where my mouth twisted. I didn’t throw it against the wall, but a princess who declares that a princess who needs to be rescued (ever) is worthless. And this while discussing some princesses’ deaths.

      She was tempting fate and should have had her comeuppance by getting into a pickle that she needed help to get out of. But I knew that despite that it should have been foreshadowing, that she would sail through the book without colliding with fate.

      1. There are times I find myself finding proof that this is NOT an animated cartoon Universe after all. Usually those times are when I find some twit the truly deserves it has not been hit by a randomly appearing pie…. or anvil. Looks like you might have found one yourself, there.

    3. Seanan McGuire’s work has a greater-than average proportion of non-heterosexual characters, but in her case it feels like it’s the air she breathes. As in, that’s one character detail, not the only one (except in situations where the cultural response matters, and we’re not always talking contemporary U.S.) Makes a difference, especially since you only find out offhandedly in some instances.

      If it’s part of the story, it should belong there. If it’s part of the character, make a whole character, not just a trait that walks and talks.

      1. I agree on all but one of the more recent Toby Daye books–Red Rose Chain, I think–where there was hardly any plot, and it was all virtue signalling about the trans character. That irked me so much, I haven’t read the one (two?) that came after, because if she was going downhill on that front, I wasn’t going to cough up the money for the books.

        (And otherwise, I loved the Toby Daye books. So if that one was just a one-off oddity, please tell me! 😀 )

        I really enjoyed Indexing, though, and the first couple of the monster hunting/ballroom dancing one. (Though I gave up on it, because the plots disappeared there, too, round about…the third one, I think?)

        The Velveteen vs. collection was a blast (though I haven’t read the second one yet).

        Haven’t managed to get into her hitchiking ghost ones, because I found the first collection of stories to be just ‘meh.’ (At least, for the price she/the publisher charged for the kindle version.)

        But overall, and most of the time, yeah: McGuire does a good job of not having the virtue-signalling get in the way of a good story.

        1. There’s nothing much further about Walther in the latter books. The latest one is a bit of a punch in the gut because you discover why running away and joining a gang was the smart option for younger Toby.

          I personally like them all, but I still think the best one is the early one with the Wild Hunt.

          1. Thanks. I got a notification from Goodreads today that the newest one in the series is coming out; perhaps I’ll give the series a second chance!

            (And I think I’d have had fewer objections to Walther if the whole “oh yeah, actually I’m trans” hadn’t come out of left field with absolutely zero previous indictaions, and then it promptly became a plot tumor that ate anything resembling plot in that one. Sigh.)

      1. When I was a kid, award-winning meant likely to be a good read. I worked my way through the Newberry and Caldecott lists with enthusiasm, and then started reading everything else on the shelves of the kids section, starting from left to right and working my way around the entire room. When I ran out of books to read, the librarian sent me forth to the adult side, with only the romances and horror forbidden. (I think she didn’t want to have to explain why I had nightmares to my folks when it came to the horror. The romances… may have had more to do with my longsuffering mother not having to sit through pre-pubescent scorn heaped upon the stupidities and frivolities of characters in things she liked to read. A wise woman, that librarian.)

        It didn’t take long after I got to the adult section of the library to figure out “Hugo winner” meant I wouldn’t like it. Sadly, this meant it took years to get around to reading the greats, because I had to have a lot of recommendations to make it past that “hugo winner” stamp on the cover on a few books. And they were good, despite the hugo. Then I figured out it meant “If it’s old and Hugo winner, it’s usually pretty good. If it’s new and hugo winner, it sucks dead rat through a straw.”

        …and then many years later, I got to know science fiction writers, found out about conventions, and years after that, this big goofy great-hearted guy named Larry started the whimsical rainbow lighthouse campaign to end puppy related sadness, and I learned why I’d been trained as a reader to reshelve anything that was medal-winning.

    1. unless i know the author’s name (say, Kevin J. Anderson, David Weber etc) I flinch at the publisher….

  8. Re flinching:

    I have a vivid imagination for what I read, and a low threshold of tolerance for excessive gore and/or violence in scenes or narrative of any kind. (One very graphic anecdote casually spoken as the intro to a safety talk, without any warning, haunted me for years because I COULD NOT UNHEAR IT.)

    An SF/F author whose early works I very much liked destroyed my enjoyment of her work by opening chapter one with a very explicitly graphic description of a particularly horrendous character death. I could not close the book fast enough.

    The death was necessary to the plot – even the means was necessary. But it seemed to me totally UN-necessary, even gratuitous, to dwell in excruciating detail on the process and the agony suffered. And to do so with absolutely no warning to the reader.

    That opening scene destroyed my trust in that author, and I have not been able to bring myself to read anything she has written since then.

    I think authors need to be aware of what their readers expect from their books, not just in terms of a good story and good characters, but in how they handle conflict, trauma, and violence. It is quite possible to convey the horrors of, say, the Napoleonic Wars or the Battle of Waterloo, without the necessity of verbally drenching the reader in their own blood or crushing them under their fallen horse.

    Leave something to the reader’s imagination, so he or she can continue with the story and not recoil in disgust or fear at being betrayed. Or at a minimum, foreshadow the graphic scenes in such a way that the reader can skim or skip them. Romance authors do this all the time, allowing readers who enjoy the story and the characters but aren’t into soft porn to skip the sex scenes and enjoy the rest.

    Obviously this is not to say that authors should never indulge in graphic descriptions of violence etc., if that is what they normally write and what their readers expect. But authors who have built a reputation for sensitive handling of potentially traumatic material should be very cautious about suddenly changing their presentation of such scenes, because it can and will lose them readers.

    My 2¢.

  9. I admit it. I’m a flincher. I don’t have the time anymore to gut it out – too many books to read and to write. I got ambushed the other day reading a suspense novel. It was all going well and then about halfway through BAM! SJ message fiction and virtue signalling. Which wouldn’t have been so bad if it wasn’t completely opposite the philosophy they’d already introduced for the main character. And like that, I was on to the next book. Irritated the holy hell out of me. If you’re going to throw a message at me, do it early, so I don’t waste my time.

    And I feel bad for your father’s poor dog. Reading about stuff like that makes me want to save him… save them all… but I can’t. =o(

  10. If I let a freshly summoned, sword-toting Prussian-sounding nobleman, start the book by eviscerating some spanish themed gang-bangers, just because the small black child who did the summoning claimed that the gangbangers hurt her mom, am I likely to alianate:

    A. Germanic readers?
    B. Hispanic readers?
    C. Black readers?
    D. Violence shy readers?
    E. The Politically Correct
    F. The Literary Correct?
    G. Those who want some logic to their main protagonists?

    1. I, technically, have German ancestry… but that doesn’t mean all my ancestors were nice, or peaceful. I expect some sort of violence to happen or be referred to – but that doesn’t mean I want to see every slash and every spatter-drop. But mainly… I want some explanation, so I truly fit “G” – unless you very quickly get someone looking into the ‘why’ as it makes no sense to them either. Or else you need to establish that surreal is normal in this world and “Stuff Happens”… but that’s hard one to keep interest in, and even then there need to be some rules (cartoon logic is goofy as all get-out… but it is consistent within the cartoon, if the cartoon is any good).

      1. Regarding logic, or lack thereof, I would have no problem with the described event if it were in a Fate/Stay Night fanfic.

        Okay, I understand why few writers would pick an interpretation of one of the canons that would make such particularly probable.

        I’m in the middle of trying to plot out a particularly deranged Fate fanfic myself.

          1. Short version: This guy named Nasu wrote some story for a couple of Japanese porno games. The story was really popular, and not only can Nasu sell just about whatever he wants to write, he can sell alternate universes written by other people.

            Keeping track of everything probably requires taking a look at the typemoon wiki.

  11. Thanks! I intended my post as sort of a joke but you gave me a very well reasoned answer that taught me something. If I understand you correctly; for some people a good explanation should come fairly early. I dont think I ever considered that. Im very much like that in real life but not necessarily when I read.
    1632 and Islands in the Sea of time are about equally old. Flint hada some pre face explanation to the strange event, which I found unneccesary yet recall 20 or so years later. Stirling iirc did not, not at least in the first book, and I did not miss it.

    As for spatter I tend to skip parts of longer fights when I read.

    Again thanks

  12. My required school reading made me flinch from anything that sounded in any sense “good for you.”

    What created such a strong and long standing (40 years!) flinch about “good for you” is the implication that you weren’t allowed to not like it. Someone had decided that this book was Worthy and if you had a different opinion then something was wrong with you.

    And that’s a big part of marketing now. The blurb or whatever has to mention how this is “good for you”. And no way to tell if it’s the *marketing* or if it’s the book. Same with all of the “helpful” people who gush about the “good for you” and don’t hardly mention the book at all.

    Christian fiction reinforced the same “good for you” flinch. Or even “this song is impossible to sing” and being scorned for the opinion with “but listen to the words.” That there is excellent Christian fiction and amazing songs doesn’t seem to matter. The flinch exists.

    But the biggest thing, the absolute *biggest* thing is that I want to be confident, I want to *trust*, that how ever bad it gets that there will be a satisfying happily-ever-after. The good guys win. The bad guys lose. Faith is rewarded and justice is poetic.

    1. My issue with Christian fiction is that most of the modern stuff (note; up to 20 years ago when I pretty much stopped reading it) is pure dreck. I loved Grace Livingston Hill and still enjoy reading some of hers, so you know my bar is not set terribly high, here! I, um, also have the same problem with a lot of modern ‘worship’ music. It’s awful horrible stuff that will make me avoid a church if I find out that’s mostly what they use in services. I much, much prefer some lovely old hymns. It isn’t that there are not a few good Christian fiction and songs, it’s that they are buried under a pile of pure saccharine that I just cannot stomach.

      1. On the other hand, a lot of the Latin hymns that have been translated, but not re-scored, don’t sound “right”. For whatever reason, Latin tended to be dactylic hexameter, not English’s iambic pentameter.

        It makes songs that should be happy sound like dirges in many renditions.

    2. I have serious problems with high volumes and excited crowds. I had best not get started on my opinion of what I have heard, justified as being ‘Bible songs’.

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