Wednesday, December 12, 2007

TK Kenyon: Sexism, Stridency, and Sounding Off

Under the category of “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished,” I was attacked in a blog for defending Doris Lessing’s recent Nobel Prize for Literature against people who denigrated her work.

I don’t want to publicize this blog, but you can search for “T.K. Kenyon + sexism” on Google and find it.

The person who wrote the blog emailed me ... twice ... through an email widgit to ensure that I knew about this particular Google search, linking my name to “sexism.” That’s a singularly cruel thing to do.

Think about how you would feel if a Google search of your name + “racism” turned up a blog accusing you of that, plus the author made sure you knew what she was calling you behind your back.

I was attacked as a “sexist,” because I noted that Doris Lessing wrote seminal feminist works, and her critics, mostly men, thought that she, a feminist writer, didn’t deserve the Nobel Prize.

That’s right, I stood up for a person being slammed by sexists, and that makes me a sexist. The woman writing the blog obviously thinks that sexism no longer exists, but it does.

Anecdotes about sexism abound. I have several. One creative writing professor that I studied with critiqued women’s stories with female characters thusly: if the character was weak, they were “weepy;” if the character was strong and yelled or did anything proactive, they were “strident.”

Men in this class did not cross-write female characters, it must be noted.

“Strident” is a term often used to defame Doris Lessing’s protagonists. The term is also used to bash women who are perceived as too strong. In Carolyn G. Heilbrun’s Writing A Woman’s Life, she said that when women tell the truth, we are called strident.

I am more trained as a scientist than as a writer, at least in number of years in graduate school, so I tend to use statistics more than anecdotes to support opinions.

Male and female authors publish books in roughly equal numbers. However:

Percentage of book reviews for male authors vs. female authors for 2006 in major review publications: 56%:44%

Percentage of book reviews for male authors vs. female authors for Jan-June 2007 in major review publications: 63%:37%

Percentage of book reviews for male authors vs. female authors for at the New York Times Review of Books (very influential): 72%:28%

Ratio of male book reviewers to female reviewers at the New York Times Review of Books: 2:1

Percentage of articles written by men to those written by women in the five “thought leader” magazines: 3:1

Worse yet, as I read most of those magazines, I can tell you with a quick glace at my stock, that the few women writers write about women, home life, babies, diapers, poems, and very light culture. The heavy stuff like economics is reserved for the boys.

Percentage of male book buyers to female: 45%:55%

Women constitute only 17 percent of opinion writers at The New York Times, 10 percent at The Washington Post, 28 percent at U.S. News & World Report, 23 percent at Newsweek and 13 percent at Time. Overall, only 24 percent of nationally syndicated columnists are women.

No matter what the flailing Uncle Tom-asina thinks about sexism, it’s alive and well in the publishing and book critiquing businesses. Doris Lessing got bashed. I got bashed for defending her from the sexists who denigrated her work because it was too “strident.”

I’m not surprised.

TK Kenyon
Author of RABID: A Novel and CALLOUS: A Novel

Monday, December 10, 2007

Don't Show -- Dramatize! (Even better than "Show, Don't Tell.")

I'm sure that, at some point, you're heard the adage Show, Don't Tell. There's even a rather good writing book by that title. Here's a new aphorism: Dramatize, Don't Just Show. Important information should be woven into the action and the results of it shown in the scene. It's a tough concept. Try to think about not telling your audience / reader the info, but just showing the effects of the event and weaving it in insidiously so that the reader just takes it for granted. Bad examples of a good idea:

Telling: Bobbie had an illegitimate child, Ted.

Showing: Bobbie picked up the photo of her and Ted, her son. He was blonde, blue-eyed, and looked like his father, Jim.
Bobbie's husband, Lars, walked into the kitchen.

Some Dramatizing and Some Summary: Ted ran through the kitchen, waving his hands, screaming "Baaaa!" and other wordless syllables. He was wild, like his father Jim. That wildness had swept Bobbie along with him for three months in Mexico, camping on the beach, hiding from the Federales, but then Jim left, and she went home to her parents and her husband.
(Never mind that it might be a run-on sentence.)

This last example still has some exposition in it. Even better would be a scene between Lars and Bobbie, with Tim doing something obnoxious and wild in the background, and the suggestion that Tim isn't Lars's son within the context of the immediate scene. Don't let the dialogue turn into exposition, but that's a whole other topic.

More Dramatizing: Ted ran through the kitchen, waving his hands, screaming "Baaaa!" Bobbie cringed, but the cringing was more a habit than a real reaction. Ted sprinted through the kitchen again, naked, "Ya-la-la-la-la-la!" and ran outside into the hot rain. Lars glanced at the café-au-lait child, shook his head, and went back to eating his high-fiber cereal. Ted streaked through again, leaving muddy footprints on the clean floor. Bobbie caught him around his seal-slippery little waist and heaved him into the kitchen sink. She rinsed the mud off him with the sink sprayer, and thinned Arkansas gumbo clay ran down the drain, probably to clog the septic tank and cost them a couple hundred dollars to have it pumped.
Lars waited, holding his bowl, for her to finish hosing Ted off. Lars was good at waiting.
Bobbie set Ted, naked and slippery but clean, on the floor and he pattered away, leaving clear, wet footprints on the tile. Lars handed her the bowl. The wild, yellow Mexican sunset pottery glinted. She hadn't bought the orange Fiestaware. The principal component of orange glaze was uranium ore, radioactive enough to hyperstimulate a Geiger counter.
"Thanks," she said and rinsed away the trace of skim milk. Lars sensibly wasted not and wanted not.
He was so, so sensible, and so terribly good at waiting. Bobbie cringed.

The dramatized information links the info to Bobbie's feelings, motivations, and history. Thus, it is dramatized. Think in terms of scene, not summary. If the sentence isn't in the real time of the scene, carefully consider cutting it.

TK Kenyon
Author of Rabid, coming in 2007 from Kunati Books
Reprinted from the author's website:

Why Read Fiction?

Lately, several times, people have said to me with some pride that they don't read fiction, because it isn't real. They read only non-fiction.

I am taken aback by this every time I hear it, yet I hear it again and again, many times from intelligent people who do read. Considering that non-fiction books outsell fiction books as categories by (last time I heard) 3:1, it is not surprising that this opinion is out there.

How do you answer these people, who say with pride that they do not read fiction? And they do not read fiction because it isn't real?

Without getting snarky that these are the people I would expect to watch reality TV shows, I stop and consider the deeper issue at hand: if it isn't real, what is the purpose of art?

The purpose of non-fiction is to inform. The purpose of technical writing is to describe a process, protocol, or idea. But what, what is the purpose of art as a whole?

It's not just pretty. Art that merely delights the senses with no deeper thought is pornography. It can't be to describe good versus evil. That is the realm of religion and morality tales.

The purpose of art is to explore what it means to be human, one human in particular and human in general.

But what then is the outcome of doing this? We already know what it is to be human. Been one all my life. Why should we read fiction and engage art?

It seems indicative to me that art and violence seem to be inversely proportional in cultures. While some (Cocaine Nights by JC Ballard) would deny this and even say that the insecurity of violence foments creativity, it seems to me that there are several examples of cultures where my premise holds.

1) The Chiracua Apaches of Southwestern USA (note: I'm a 1/4, so I can say this) had very little art. They retold stories through dance (though these were usually the recounting of exploits, not creative endeavors) and had a few decorative arts (beading and such). They were also one of the most violent peoples in history. Essentially, it was a culture of serial killers. Brutal, sadistic killing was encouraged and celebrated. They ate a lot of raw horse meat, many times their own horses. I'm researching serial killers right now for my next novel, and Ted Bundy, et al, were amateurs compared to Apaches. Art humanizes others to us. The Apaches' lack of art allowed them to not recognize the humanity of other people and so kill them, usually horribly.

2) Indians from India, on the other hand, fought very few wars among themselves and had peace for generations upon generations, even though many different ethnicities, languages, and religions crowd the subcontinent. They produced some of the oldest creative works known to man, decorated everything, and made art part of their religion. Their temples are some of the most gorgeous in the world. Even their clothes, like saris, are silk shot with gold thread. Every morning, many women make sand paintings as a religious devotion that is swept away every night. (Note: Navajos make sand paintings as part of their religion, not Apaches.) Jewelry, household items, and clothes are elaborately decorated. They invented condiments to further decorate food. Some of their spices add little taste to the already highly seasoned food but add color. Whole segments of society are vegetarian and practice ahimsa, non-violence to every living thing. These are the folks who threw the British out by passive resistance. They defeated the world's greatest empire by not fighting.

Some people might say that the disparity in the wealth of a culture makes a difference. I disagree. Rural India and the slums of Calcutta are every bit as desperate as the reservations are now and the desert was 150 years ago.

I think art humanizes us. That's its purpose: to make us fully human and able to see the humanity in others, so that we cannot be murderers.

TK Kenyon, author of Rabid: A Novel, coming in 2007 from Kunati Books
tags: novels, fiction, books, arts, politics, art, spirituality, non-fiction