I am not anyone’s metaphor

Today in A&U magazine there’s a new interview of me by Raymond Luczak:

More and more I’m seeing the same military metaphors used in the treatment of MS as those long in use for cancer and AIDS—fighting the disease, aggressive marshalling of forces, immune defense, etc.—but MS is not metaphorized to anything like the extent of HIV/AIDS. I’ve never seen MS characterized as a plague, for example, or invasion, probably because it’s not generally regarded as infectious. The metaphors of AIDS, it seems to me, are largely built on fear and disgust—with a vast moral dimension—whereas those for MS are based on pity. Both are distancing and Othering; both are dangerous.

I enjoyed this one. Thanks to Raymond for asking interesting questions.

Upcoming events

  • 3/27, 7:00 pm. Seattle, WAElliott Bay Book Company. In conversation with Sarah Schulman about her wonderful new novel, Maggie Terry. Here’s what I said about it:

    Set in 2017 Manhattan, Schulman’s latest is day-after noir: the party is over, the neon burnt out, and there’s nothing to drink but cold-pressed kale juice. While you were doing lines and knocking back shots, your wife took your child and left, your partner got himself killed, and you lost your badge. So now you have nothing but 12 steps. And while you weren’t looking, or at least not seeing, someone slowly strangled your community. It’s all gone: the gays have left, the bodegas are shut, and rat-infested tenements all replaced by condos overrun with man-buns.

    This is classic Schulman: crime fiction, yes, but the murder that matters is of the urban neighbourhood. Schulman flenses and dissects the human condition, weighs every organ—how we connect, what forms the beating heart of a community—then magically breathes life back into the husk and helps it rise, reborn. Schulman asks, Who are you when you have nothing left? What can you do when you can do nothing? You go on. You learn to see, or see clearly, to tell yourself the truth and accept that truth, and shoulder the responsibility. Maggie Terry is a light shining in the waste, offering hope: Where there are people, there is the possibility of connection, and together we can make it. You should read this.

  • 4/5 – 4/7. Orcas Island, WAOrcas Island Literary Festival. Schedule here. I’m doing three public events, all on Saturday 4/6:
    • Panel, “When bad things happen to good people.” Black Box, Orcas Center; 9:30 – 10:35 am.
    • Staged interview, with Jule Treneer; Black Box, Orcas Center; 2:00 – 2:30 pm.
    • Reading, Main Stage, Orcas Center, 7:15 – 9:15 pm.
  • 4/11- 4/13. Vancouver, BC, CanadaIONA: Early Medieval Studies on the Islands of the North Atlantic, transformative networks, skills, theories, and methods for the future of the field. Simon Fraser University. Schedule here.
    • My main event will be at 4:00 pm on Friday 12th April, when I give the plenary speech, “The personal is political—and scholarly, and creative.” In which I talk about embodiment, and how Hild deconstructs the historical discourse on gender, sexuality, and race.

 

Brandi Carlile made me cry

Black and white photo of teenage girl sitting on the grass and rolling a cigarette. She has long hair, tied back, gold-rimmed glasses, and there's a can of Long Life beer beside her.

Image description: Black and white photo of the author’s sister, Helena Griffith, sitting on the grass and rolling a cigarette. She is about 17, with long hair and glasses. A can of Long Life beer is by  her knee.


I was reading the paper this morning and was reminded that tonight Seattle musician, Brandi Carlile, is up for 6 Grammy Awards. I’ve only seen her perform once, at a private event nine years ago, but the memory of that night is strong and visceral so I thought I’d repost my thought from that event.

Enjoy. And, Brandi, if you’re reading this: Thank you for that, and good luck!


Last night I went to a private event for the Women’s Funding Alliance. We were feasted by Seattle celebrity chefs (including Becky Selengut—who created the insanely fabulous food for our 20th anniversary celebration three years ago). The food was superb. The wine flowed freely.

Brandi Carlile sat at the table next to ours. Later, when someone bid an astronomical sum (five figures) for a request, she played Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’. Just her and a piano, in touching distance. It’s a powerful piece—love, lust, longing, loss—and was a favourite of my little sister, Helena. Hearing it unexpectedly, live, by someone who really knew what she was doing, made me weep right there at the table.

There was a moment, as she figured out the range and first few chords (she normally does this song on the guitar), when I could have locked it all down and listened with a perfectly poised and pleasant expression. But then I remembered the point of the evening, which was to raise funds for women and girls who need help. And, oh, Helena had needed help. I had tried to give it, but she died anyway. So I let art do what it does, let it tear through the polite and careful curtain of my public persona, and wept.

At the end I was offered a tissue by an older woman who smiled and waved away my thanks. “When art moves you, what else can you do?” (Thanks, Carrie.)

But I’ll be giving to WFA and other organisations who help women and girls. And perhaps next time you see a woman or girl, homeless or hungry or otherwise in need, you will too.

Deep and crisp and even

It snowed. Again. The fence is buried, the van is buried, the road is buried. Everything is buried in 7-8″ of snow. Apparently there’s more on the way today. And tomorrow. And Monday. As for Tuesday, well, I’ll talk about that in a bit.

Van parked in a driveway next to a fence and surrounded by trees and shrubs. Everything is blanketed in snow. The van is just a vague hump of white and only the top of the fence shows. It's a colour photo but everything is eerie shades of blue, grey, and white.

A colour photo that looks monochrome. The front garden, driveway, and road with a neighbour's house. But all you can see is snow, no road surface at all. If you didn't know it was there you would say iti was a field.

The deck off the kitchen is very sheltered but now it's smothered in snow. Still, silent. All you can see of the planters are weird shapes. The table looks like a delicious deep frosted cake. Pine tree branches seem sprayed with foam and are hanging low and heavy with snow. Again, a colour photo but it looks monochrome.

Here’s what the local supermarket looked like Thursday—early Thursday (by Friday I’m guessing even the raddiccio was gone, and possibly those working checkout eaten):

empty shelves

The bread shelves and dairy cases were empty. The only meat you could get was bison. Today, of course, no one will be going anywhere, unless employees and intrepid customers have skis and/or snow shoes. There again, it is Seattle…

We, of course, are well-stocked, with a beef and marrowbone stew bubbling on the stove, the freezer stuffed and fridge groaning. We have many bottles of wine and two full cases of beer. We have books, and a fire, and each other. And it’s so deliciously quiet and still. In some ways, I’m quite looking forward to the next week—

—or two.

Here’s a map of Seattle’s snow-clearing plan:

Map of Seattle city neighbourhoods, criss-rossed by gold lines and green lines. Gold represents all road lanes clear of snow and ice. Green means one lane in each direction clear of snow and ice. There are two conspicious chunks of map with zero lines. One, in the upper right corner, is Broadview, where we live.

Bearing in mind that Seattle has very few snow ploughs this is an extremely optimistic map. But you see that red circle around the neighbourhood with zero snow-clearing plans? That’s where we live.

We are at the bottom of a very steep hill. With overnight temperatures predicted to be around 12˚F (-11.1˚C) it will turn into a sheet of ice. There’s no ski lift or funicular; I do not have skis or treads for my wheelchair. Even if there was no more snow, I suspect I’ll be marooned for a long time. And as the mother of all snowstorms is probably heading our way on Tuesday, I’m beginning—despite our supplies—to get just a little fretful.

This morning I read Clifford Mass’s weather blog. According to European climate models (which I tend to find more accurrate than most), it’s very possible Seattle will see 10-16″ of snow:

Graph of the European climate model showing 51 variations of weather predictions. But all show a startling change from light blue (4

Given that the forecasts for Friday were for about 4″ of snow, and here in our little pocket climate we had close to 7″, I’m feeling just a tad pessimistic. But, as with my political predictions, I’m very often wrong about weather. So at the same time—I really don’t have a problem with being paradoxical—I feel bizarrely cheerful and sure it will all work out just fine.

And, hey, wine, food, fire, books, and my sweetie… There are definitely worse things.

My new favourite interview

My first interview of 2019 is up: with Alexis M. Smith in Moss. It’s long and juicy and a firehose of opinion.

Smith

I’m curious about your aversion to “It Books” and whether you find literary-novels-of-the-moment depressing because they avoid the kind of tension and conflict we’re talking about here? Is that why they seem depressing? Because they don’t engage in the urgency of action and violence/vulnerability and fear?

Griffith

They make me impatient because they don’t engage in anything meaningful in a wider context. The big wide world and the people in it matters. Really, who apart from you gives a shit about the ethics of you having an adulterous affair? Or your inner conflict over whether or not you should feel bad about not having a baby? Or whether your dinner party will turn out well enough to be discussed positively in your social circle? No one will die one way or another. The world won’t change. You probably won’t even lose your job or home. It feels pointless. That kind of insipidity makes me want to reach into the book to, say, the privileged, self-absorbed drugged-up deliberately somnambulistic protagonist, pour cold water on her as she wallows in her own high-thread-count existential misery, and yell, Grow the fuck up!

A lot of It novels are depressing. They’re depressing because they focus not on horror (or terror or lust or joy or hunger) but on angst, anxiety, and self-worthlessness. Anxiety and angst are not major, free-flowing emotions; they are a sign of internal dithering.

Think of a novel’s premise as an analogue of a self-defense situation. Fear sends a message as clear as a bell: This situation is dangerous; get out now! Anxiety is about second-guessing yourself: It’s not really dangerous, is it? Surely not. I know him; he’s my husband’s friend. I must be wrong… When a character is constantly in that self-questioning mode, it makes me as a reader impatient and irritated. Why don’t they believe themselves and just fucking get out?

There are all kinds of rants in there, as well as some serious stuff about Aud and Hild and what makes a novel good. But I admit, I like the unleashed stuff best.

We know so little of Hild’s time […] the role of women in the so-called Dark Ages could not remotely resemble the bullshit we’ve been fed in which we were merely rape toys and/or brood mares and/or warty old wise women of the wood. Because otherwise how could Hild—born the second daughter of a murdered father, with zero power and influence in the regime of petty warlords styling themselves kings of a feuding, bloody, aliterate, heathen culture—end up counselor to kings of proto-states with a literate, Christian bureaucracy; a teacher and leader of bishops; head of a religious foundation famous for its influence and hosting of the Synod which changed the course of British history; and still known fourteen hundred years (nearly a millennium and half!) later for her power, wisdom, and learning?

So if you fancy a diversion on this cold Monday here’s 5,000 words of unexpurgated book talk.

Enjoy!

Passport to a perilous future

Image description: The front of a maroon UK passport, with writing and the UK version of the royal coat of arms in gold. The writing reads: European Union. United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.


At the end of last year I realised that my UK passport would expire in seven months. I thought about where we could all be by then—in the UK, crashed out of Brexit with serious civil unrest; in the US, consitutional crisis and deeper divisions—and concluded, Fuck that, I’m renewing right now while at least some government is functioning.

I got the new passport yesterday. I am still, on paper at least, a citizen of the European Union. And for the next ten years I’ll be able to gaze at my passport and remember fondly the Good Old Days when Kelley and I could have lived and worked in 29 different countries. After Brexit, it will only be only three: US, UK, and Éire/the Republic of Ireland (the UK has a very long-standing arrangement—outside the Good Friday agreement, beyond the EU—that its citizens may live and work in Ireland).

So, after Prime Minister Theresa May’s historic Brexit deal defeat in the Commons—the worst government defeat since, well, maybe ever—what happens next?

First of all, from my perspective the current leadership of both Labour and the Conservative parties appear to be incompetent, and the Lib-Dems haven’t a hope of forming a government. So let’s set aside for now the question of who will be in power later this year (or even if there will be a United Kingdom to take control of).

What should happen now, in my opinion, is a year-long extension of Article 50 with a second referendum planned for late summer—this time with formal debates that are publicly fact-checked in real time. The preponderence of evidence in favour of remaining in the European Union would, naturally, be so overwhelming that the good citizens of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland would, of course, vote to unilaterally withdraw Article 50, and no one in the UK will ever talk about withdrawing from the EU again, The end.

Why, yes, that is a fairy story! Not only would a years’s delay fuck up EU parliamentary elections in May, and so be very unlikely to be endorsed by European lawmakers, but British politicians are a venal bunch, not really interested in the public good. And UK citizens, on the whole, are an easily manipulated mob who believe what’s most convenient—with a particular fondness for tall tales of Great Britain’s mighty world stature.

So what will happen? Anything from the dissolution of the United Kingdom, to a return to rationing; from the collapse of civilisation as we know it, to a deep economic recession; from serious civil unrest, to a new Golden Age; and from aliens intervening for the sake of the planet, to…nothing much at all.

If I had to bet, though, perhaps a brief (and because of those EU parliamentary elections it would have to be brief—60 days?) postponement of Article 50 implementation, vicious Parliamentary squabbling, a UK Commons vote on a very slightly softened UK-EU divorce settlement, and a bitter, seething citizenry aware of challenging times ahead. But in fairness you should know I’m almost always wrong about this stuff. So, yeah, no clue.

One thing I do know with bedrock certainty is that people in the UK, especially those already leading a marginalised existence (the ill, un- and underemployed, old, and disabled), are suffering.1 This suffering will only worsen in the face of political tumult.

So, all those who voted to Take Our Country Back to some mythical, magical era of magnificent superpower autonomy, are you having fun yet?


1 Some are dying. Late last year a disabled man, who had been refused his benefits, died due to refeeding syndrome—which is what happens when someone has starved so severely for so long that, when given food, their metabolic system collapses in chaos. To set this in context, it’s the kind of thing that happened when Americans liberated Nazi death camps at the end of the second world war and handed rich rations to the starving prisoners. And then there are all those pensioners who die in cold weather because they can’t afford to keep their flats warm.

The gift of a negative review

Part of a critic’s job is to offer an expert, informed opinion of art. Keyword: informed. We need disabled critics to review art by and about disabled people.

No one views a novel, painting, or symphony through the same lens, but an expert critic will often see not only the art’s brilliance but its flaws. And no matter how good a painting, novel, or symphony is, there is almost always something about it that could be improved.1 We need clear-eyed, honest, informed critical assessment of art, whether in emotional, intellectual, moral, or political terms. In other words, we need negative reviews. A negative review can be a gift.

For an author, negative reviews are not fun. Some writers refuse to read any review of their work, and they have their reasons, but I read all my reviews, great and small.2 When they’re wrong, they teach me about readers’ biases and assumptions. When they’re right, they point to ways for me to improve. Either way, for me negative reviews are useful.

For a reader, negative reviews can be a real gift. The significance of this gift can range from saving one reader $10 and five tedious hours, to saving another reader’s life. No, I am not exaggerating. I believe some books can be so dangerous, so reinforcing of a despair-making cultural message that they contribute to suicide. If you’re a member of a group that’s already so marginalised that suicide rates are high, being warned away from a particular book, or having the book’s implicit messages discussed openly, can save you a lot of grief.

To be clear, I am not suggesting writers should not write fiction that is disturbing, or emotionally or culturally challenging. I am saying that cultural critics have a moral obligation to name the explicit messages and unearth the implicit messages delivered by the book under review.

To illustrate my point I will use a specific example, a novel about a disabled character, Still Life With Monkey, written by a nondisabled author, Katharine Weber. The book was published in August 2018, adorned with blurbs from a variety of well-known writers,3 and reviewed in outlets including the New York Times Book Review and the Washington Post (including starred reviews from the usual publishing trade journals such as Publishers Weekly and Kirkus, all linked to below).

I read the novel before publication: Duncan, a successful, rich, married, satisfied, secure architect in his 30s freaks out about his feelings for his male protegé, Todd, and loses control of their car, with the result that Todd dies and Duncan sustains a C6 break and becomes quadriplegic. After a year of living with a helper monkey in a wonderful house with his wonderful wife, in complete financial security, paid staff of every kind, and a new opportunity to finally design exactly what he wants, Duncan finds life as a quad so unbearable that he kills himself. His wife inherits all his money, finally takes care of her brother-in-law’s disorderly life, and founds a nonprofit to look after retired helper monkeys. The status quo is magically restored, and with the tedious mournful cripple out of the way, everyone else lives happily ever after. I hated it.

The ableism and whiffs of homosexual panic embedded in Still Life With Monkey appalled me. Essentially, what this book said to me was, No matter how much you are loved, or, once you’ve recovered from the shock, how fine your life could be, if you need help with everyday life activities, that life is not worth living. Also, if you die all those who love you will be better off, so why not do everyone a favour and kill yourself?4

I was appalled, too, by the poor quality of the trade reviews. PW, for example, doesn’t know the difference between quadriplegic and paraplegic; Kirkus uses phrases like ‘wheelchair-bound.’ Unsurprisingly, both (anonymous) trade reviewers loved the book, and either didn’t see or did not have the skill to call out the homosexual panic subtext and the if-you-can’t-walk-life’s-not-worth-living ableism. Instead, theses reviewers suggested Weber is being ‘brave’ and ‘unflinching’ and ‘unsentimental’ about facing ‘hard truths.’ I would be very surprised if any of the trade reviewers were disabled.

So when mainstream reviews began a couple of months later, I paid attention. All but one of the reviews I read failed to point out either the ableist or homophobic messages of the novel. They, too, appeared to believe Weber was just bravely calling it as she saw it. To be fair, I think that’s exactly what she was doing. I’m guessing she thought she was just facing the unpalatable truth, that is, the truth as she imagined it would be for her if she became quadraplegic overnight.

Many nondisabled people really do think that if they became crippled, by accident or illness, they be better off dead. In my experience, disabled people rarely think this.5 So I do not believe the author intended harm; I do not believe she was aware of what a terrible message her book was delivering to disabled people (and bisexual men).

The thing is, it doesn’t matter what the author intended. Intention does not equal impact. And the impact of this book’s conclusion on anyone wrestling with new disability—that is, just when they are most vulnerable—could very well be: Oh, just kill yourself already because everyone will be better off without you moping around and ruining our previously aesthetically-pleasing bubble.

The single review I found that might have warned a disabled reader, or one of their loved ones, of the shock and horror of this book was Karen Joy
Fowler’s piece in the Washington Post.

Katharine Weber’s “Still Life With Monkey” is a beautifully wrought paean of praise for the ordinary pleasures taken for granted by the able-bodied. In precise and often luminous prose, with intelligence and tenderness, Weber’s latest novel examines the question of what makes a life worth living. The answer the book offers is its only disappointment, but a profound one.

Fowler also points to the homophobic panic subtext—though is kinder about than I would have been.

The book is somewhat mysterious on the subject of Duncan’s fondness for Todd. But the important fact is the one Duncan expresses quite plainly: “Todd Walker will always be dead. I will always be the reason.”

Weber uses Duncan’s guilt over Todd’s death as a fig leaf to cover her ableist assumptions. She wants us to believe that Duncan doesn’t want to die because he’s a cripple, oh dear me no. He wants to die because he feels guilty about Todd’s death. But a close study of the text (and trust me, I studied it closely; it’s the most attention I’ve paid a book since doing my PhD) shows this to be nonsense.

Thankfully, Fowler is very clear about the main impact of the book.

This excellent novel is, however, all but spoiled by its ending. I counted on the imagination and intelligence shown in the rest of the book to carry through. Instead, we’re given the same appalling conclusion we see so often in tales of disability. The end of Duncan’s story line is a terrible letdown. The conclusion of Laura’s story is unpersuasive. Only Ottoline has an ending I can embrace. As she begins the book, so does she close it, with a bright energy and the continual mystery of her complex and curious mind.

If Karen Fowler could see what the real message of this book is, why couldn’t other reviewers? More to the point, why would assigning editors commission nondisabled critics to review a novel that evolves around attitudes to disability? We’ve all seen the embarrasing results of white critics taking on the work of writers of colour6 (and, worse, that of white authors writing about race and making clichéd assumptions about the lives of characters of different races or ethnicities). These days few self-respecting editors would assign such a review to a white freelancer (professional critics can be a slightly different case). We know that if a book about women’s experience, or queer experience, is assigned for review it should probably be to a professional book critic or to a guest reviewer who identifies, respectively, as a woman or queer. On the other hand, if the book isn’t about the experience of a member of a traditionally marginalised community but is, say, a straight-up murder mystery, or campus novel (does anyone even write those anymore?) or romance that just happens to feature a protagonist who is black, or queer, or a woman, then the identitfy of the reviewer might not matter so much, because race, sexual orientation, and gender may not be essential to the narrative. Although, of course, you would not assign such a book to a known racist, misogynist, or homophobe.

But a novel about disability, especially one written by a nondisabled author, really, seriously needs to be evaluated by someone who understands the lived experience of being disabled. This is because most nondisabled (and some disabled) people are so unaware of their ableist bias that they are de facto ableists. In terms of disability, most people simply can’t yet offer an informed assessment.

One quarter of US residents have a disability that effects their lives (though I’m guessing not all would identify as disabled).7 It shouldn’t be too hard to find a decent book critic who is disabled. A critic with lived experience of disability will not only recognise ableism when they see it but probably also spot the kind of wish-fulfillment some beginner writers indulge in, and, hopefully, be more willing to call it out. Because, oh yep, there’s a lot of crap criplit out there (after all, 90% of everything is crap; criplit is not immune).

So, book review editors, do better: employ some disabled critics who will actually understand the issues at hand. And, book critics, if you are not disabled but are offered criplit to review, at least ask the opinion of a couple of disabled book professionals you trust. It will save you embarrassment, it might help a new writer improve, and it might, it really might, save someone’s life.


1 In my brief critical career I always felt obliged to point out these flaws, even in work I loved. Most of that work I would still stand by—with one memorable exception—but eventually, in the late 90s, I stopped reviewing. I believe offering only unalloyed praise is not useful–for writers or readers–in the long run, but punching down felt mean-spirited, and punching up was proving counterproductive. The exception? My review in NYRSF of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. I misread one aspect of the book so badly it makes my toes curl to think about it, but happily Octavia forgave me.
2 I believe most (though not nearly all, sigh) negative reviews of my work are wrong-headed. The first Locus review of Ammonite, for example, said something like, “It might have been so much more meaningful if Marghe had had a brother…” And then of course there are the So Lucky reviews like this one.
3 All of whom should know better. See the publisher’s book page, and reviews from Publishers Weekly, NYTBR, and Kirkus. for samples of clueless critics. See the Washington Post for a much better approach.
4 In this way, it’s very like JoJo Moyes’ Me Before You. I’d like to take a flamethrower to both.
5 This is one of the many perils risked by those who write outside their cultural experience. I have no quarrel with those who do, only with the fact that most of them don’t employ sensitivity readers who can point out egregious subtext—or even maintext—that the writer is unable to see. It’s why we need more #OwnVoices fiction, to displace the well-meaning tripe pumped out by novelists who have no clue about the lived experience of, for example, queer and disabled people.
6 Hunt down some reviews of Toni Morrison’s early work, just to pick out one example.
7 These are figure released by the CDC in August, 2018.