Books on the Shelf 1.2

This is the second installment of my aptly-named series “Books on the Shelf,” in which I take any title or object from one of my lovingly alphabetized shelves and write a short response.

Cervantes to Defoe
Completed ratio: 8 of 19

Can you make out the title of the second book from the right? It’s Peter Ho Davies’s The Ugliest House in the World. It’s a very approachable collection of short stories that I purchased in college with a $50 gift card to Borders that I won as part of a poetry reading contest my sophomore(?) year.

It is a fortunate thing that I do not have the poem any longer, because I am positive it doesn’t deserve the internet knowing about it. It was written in response to a prompt from my actual Poetry Writing class, which was to write a poem “about a place you’ve never been.” I wrote what at the time seemed like a silly, humorous poem (but if it still existed somewhere might just be full-on terrible) about the teacher’s lounge, and I somehow rhymed “teachers” with “what we’d do behind the bleachers,” and one of the student judges told me after the fact that it was this line that won the contest for me.

Oh, undergrad!

As for the class, I think I got a B. I was an irritating, arrogant, and naive thing to have in a poetry writing class. The professor happened to be a short, arrogant, and somewhat sexist fellow, and a total jerk to have teaching a poetry class. I wrote a poem that used the word “dodecahedron” in it (do not ask me why), and he graded it poorly, in part because of something having to do with the soft “e” sound in the second-to-last syllable but also because that’s dumb. Instead of rolling with it, I went up to my short, arrogant, and somewhat sexist professor, and told him that the second-to-last syllable in fact has a hard “e”. The following class meeting, he caught me afterwards and told me that yes, the word does have a hard “e”, that he’d looked it up in four separate dictionaries. Why on earth he didn’t trust the first one, I don’t know any more than I know why I wrote a poem with the word “dodecahedron” in it.

You can see how we’re all at fault here.

As a further insult to the world of poetry, my teacher’s lounge poem earned me $50 in gift money. This is more than a lot of really excellent poets can say, thus supporting the theory that there is a near-total lack of justice in the world. With that gift card, I purchased Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Jean Rhys’s Voyage in the Dark, and Peter Ho Davies’s The Ugliest House in the World, which has a lovely and touching short story called “Release” that revolves around a big fart unleashed at a dinner of British army officers at the dawn of the 20th century.

I can think of no better way to end this story than with the secondhand story of a literary fart. Cheers!

Books on the Shelf 1.1

I am the only person I know who alphabetizes her private library. I do it with a sheer and unrelenting joy. I know how to find things, and I don’t have to remember where they are. Oh, you want to borrow my copy of Night Circus? Here you go! Feel like looking up that passage from Huckleberry Finn? Look how easy that was.

It’s pretentious as eff, which only makes me enjoy it more. Y’all can keep your disorganized, “but I just know where they are” bookshelves. Not me. God invented the alphabet for a reason, damn it.

Anyway. This is the first installment of my aptly-named series “Books on the Shelf.” I’m going to take advantage of my amazing organizational system (aka the alphabet) by going through each of my 18 shelf rows and picking a topic from each to discuss. Could I do this with chaotic, randomly compiled shelves? Sure, but it would be less fun. When I finish, I’ll start over again, because I will have certainly shifted my collection a bit since then.

Let’s get started. Ready? Shelf one! What do we have here?

Adams through Carroll
Completed ratio: 11 of 23

Crap. She had to come at the front of the alphabet.

I can’t gloss over Marion Zimmer Bradley. I would rather talk about how much I love Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons, or about my friend Brenner’s bizarre pamphlet “Five Steps to Greater Joy in a World of Sorrow,” but there’s an elephant on the bookshelf.

I got Mists of Avalon and The Forest House years ago, before Bradley’s actions became widely known within the SF/F community. I may have purchased Mists of Avalon myself; I worked at a bookstore in high school and made generous use of the employee discount. The Forest House was a gift I requested, if memory serves.

I understand that her publisher continues to sell the titles and has arranged for the proceeds to go to charities supporting victims of abuse. (I’m open to being fact-checked here.)

I did not reread Mists in advance of writing this post. What I recall are its effects on me when I first read it as a teenager and then again in my 20s. I recall discovering female characters in epic fantasy who were central, defined, and powerful, which were in short supply in the 1980s and 90s. I recall a treatment of female sexuality that was empowering because it was real. I recall characters that were flawed in recognizable ways that broadened my understanding of humanity.

And yet, look at what its author did.

Everyone must decide for themselves what to do with the creative work of abusers and bigots. I am fortunate; I have not suffered abuse at the hands of a relative or trusted friend. It’s easy for me to say that we should not dismiss the work of a flawed creator. While it’s true that if we chuck all the books written by dangerous or damaging people, our bookshelves would be pretty sparse (Lewis Carroll’s just a few inches down, after all), it’s also true that if I had experienced abuse, I’d likely feel stung at the very presence of works deemed “genius” by people who didn’t seem to care about the suffering of others.

Is there something selfish in holding onto these books that I have loved? Yes, I suppose so. It’s also true that I won’t be able to read them again without remembering how its author caused deep hurt to other human beings. Something’s spoiled, and perhaps that’s as it should be.

I have other books by other problematic writers on other shelves. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s story strikes pretty close to home, though, because she worked within a genre space in such a way that gave inspiration and joy to so many, and she boldly advanced feminist writing. Feminists and child abuse? What? But we do ourselves no credit if we dismiss the harm done by once-beloved figures. We also risk causing further harm if we believe our value communities to be immune from sheltering the sorts of people who would hurt those who cannot speak for themselves.

I don’t intend to make this blog into a place for politics or fighting or the kind of anger that cancels people or provokes further outrage. However, as many other artists have observed before, all art is political. Not mentioning Bradley’s work and deeds, or hiding them from my shelf long enough to take a picture, or destroying all evidence that the world was ever fooled by the front she allegedly put up, are all choices that one can make. So is keeping the work that’s spoiled, to remind us that even our heroes might be rotten.

Here are a few charities I’ve found that support victims of child abuse:

What Happens at Viable Paradise

Hi! If you’ve landed here—which also happens to be the inaugural post on my blog—I’d guess it’s because you’re thinking of applying to Viable Paradise, you’ve been accepted to Viable Paradise, or someone you know has been accepted, and you’d like to know what it is.

The Viable Paradise website does a great job of telling you what specifics to expect. Even so, the distance between “you will receive a writing assignment” and staying up late Wednesday night with a dozen other writers in the common room to finish a draft is full of many feelings.

I’ll take a stab at describing what I experienced at Viable Paradise 23. It’s an unapologetically incomplete picture, but with any luck it will convey some of the flavor.

My week at Viable Paradise started off with a little challenge, in that I arrived with acute laryngitis. It actually happens every time I get sick, and I was on the mend from a cold when I arrived on Martha’s Vineyard. Not what I’d hoped for!

By the time I met my Viable Paradise cohort on Sunday night, I could barely say my name loud enough to be heard in the acoustically challenging common room. Forget about projecting enough to tell a joke or ask a question. What’s more, at Viable Paradise, there is (reportedly) a lot of singing late at night—but not for me! Couldn’t sing a lick. I was kaput.

There are, mildly put, worse things. Still, though. I would have liked to have had some conversations. Instead I’d try to introduce myself, and people would look at me with huge eyes and ask if they could fetch me a throat lozenge or a cup of tea.

Writing tip: If you want to show that a character is kind, perhaps have them offer a throat lozenge or a cup of tea.

Oh, but look: if you take someone (me) who tends to talk too much and force her to listen, guess what? She listens!

I mean, duh, of course that’s good, that listening thing. Really, though, it was healthy to be thrown off my game at the first of the week, because guess what: the whole week is an exercise in stepping out of your comfort zone. Yes, there are critiques and lectures and exercises and opportunities to visit with instructors privately and more. But Viable Paradise was the first time a lot of us had found ourselves in the company of so many other strong writers with such great imaginations, for that long a stretch. That is both the most wonderful thing in the world, and also terrifying. It’s time to abandon all those ideas you had when you were first doing this in the corner of your bedroom (or wherever) and you had the safety of nobody knowing about it. Now it’s time to engage with the community for real.

A lot of the beauty of it has to do with your cohort, which I can pretty much guarantee will be filled with interesting people of different backgrounds (just to sample a few). The Viable Paradise grads on staff work hard to ensure that each VP class gets the same positive experience that they did. That means looking out for people’s physical and emotional health and setting a tone of positive collaboration. By the time the week is over, that group of 24 good writers becomes a cohort prepared to support and cheer one another on into the future.

The week didn’t get anybody signed with an agent. (There were no agents there, so…) The week didn’t see anyone selling their novels to a big-five publisher. But it was about learning craft and building positive relationships with an excellent group of writers.

Now, me being mostly silent for those first few days is not the only way I would have figured all this out. But thanks to all that listening-not-talking, it was immediately apparent that while all of us at Viable Paradise are passionate strivers and dedicated dreamers, we can also do it together as friends and colleagues. So apply to Viable Paradise, and go. Fundraise if you have to. (Some people in our class had to get creative with funding. It’s okay. Don’t let that stop you from applying.) If you go, go with the goal of sharing with kindness. It’ll be worth it—even if you can’t talk.