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Will Self recently published an article in which he proclaimed George Orwell a “literary mediocrity” and his admirers even more so. In particular, he condemns Orwell’s rules for writing in “Politics and the English Language” as a reaction to the inevitable growth and change of language. My first reaction to these statements is that nobody has a right to condemn an influential writer as mediocre unless they can demonstrate at least equal skill, which, both analytically and structurally, Self has not done. My second is that his interpretation is so unsupported that it seems a willful misunderstanding.

If you have any interest in writing at all, you have probably seen Orwell’s rules:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Contrary to Self, these rules are concerned with clarity, so to claim that they are even implicitly about the evolution of language is forced. Besides, when “Politics and the English Language” ends with the claim that its topic “has nothing to do with correct grammar and syntax, which are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear,” Orwell cannot possibly be said to be resisting linguistic change. In fact, far from being against change, Orwell’s rules overall advocate originality, and an avoidance of over-used expressions.

Moreover, as I used to explain every semester when teaching university composition, the rules are far more flexible than a general impression of them suggests. For example, most people reading the first rule emphasize “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech.” However, Orwell’s real concern is expressed in the words that most people forget: “which you are used to seeing in print.” Orwell is not trying to ban figures of speech, but to encourage original, expressive ones.

Similarly, Orwell’s second rule does not blindly favor short words or longer ones. The result of following such a rule would be an affected simplicity of the kind that you sometimes see in Hemingway. If you mean to convey only a general sense of size, then “big” might do, but if you want to suggest something truly outsized, then “humongous” would be a more appropriate word choice, even though it is three times as long.
In the same way, “Never use the passive where you can use the active” proposes a general rule, but makes the choice a matter of purpose. If you want to suggest helplessness in a short story, “A groan issued from his lips” would be a better choice than “he groaned,” and never mind that it is in the passive voice. Nor, to judge from Orwell’s own writing, would he hesitate to use “a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word” if no “everyday English equivalent” comes to mind.

However, of all Orwell’s six rules, the last one is the most important. “Politics and the English Language” is all about original, forceful, and clear expression. With these concerns, presumably the last thing Orwell wanted to do was limit expression artificially, so in the last rules, he specifically provides for exceptions. He is talking about general tendencies, but in the end what counts for him is whatever works, not keeping the rules. “One could keep all of them and still write bad English,” he admits in the paragraph after them, and their sole virtue is that even a bad example of them would avoid the over-inflated type of English he condemns.

Of course, like all writers, when Orwell advises about writing, he is on some level rationalizing his own style, and his advice may not be as meaningful to some readers as to others. However, before Self or anyone dismisses his work as mediocre or out of date, they should at least do him the courtesy of responding to what he actually said, instead of debunking what they imagine he says.

I was slow to discover works of Lois McMaster Bujold. For decades, I believed her marketing, and dismissed her books as space opera or military SF. However, thanks to Jo Walton’s blog on the pleasures of re-reading, which devotes several entries to Bujold’s Vorkosigan series, I was persuaded to look beyond the covers. Consequently, the fifteen or so books in the series have formed the major part of my fiction reading in the last month, and I find myself wanting to whimper impatiently as I wait for more.

Bujold’s marketing does her no favors, because her stories of Miles Vorkosigan bear the same relation to standard space opera as John Le Carre’s novels do to the average spy thriller. You won’t find long, lovingly detailed accounts in her novels of ship to ship combat in deep space, or, in fact, very many short ones. In fact, many of the battles take place off-stage. You won’t even find that many descriptions of hand-to-hand combat, since a pre-natal poisoning has left Miles stunted and with brittle leg and arm bones. Miles does pass through the inevitable military academy, but only a small part of those years is ever narrated. Far from the usual war-porn, many novels in the series are better described as mysteries, or perhaps as thrillers.

At one point, Bujold does offer an info dump on the changing military technologies in her universe, but, more often, her concerns are the sociological effects of technology. Falling Free, for example, is about what happens when humans engineered for construction in space suddenly find themselves obsolete. Similarly, an important element in many of the novels in the series is the effect of the uterine replicators that free women from the necessity of childbirth.

In general, too, Bujold shows an acceptance of diversity that contrasts with the conservatism of modern space opera. Her Beta Colony is cosmopolitan and liberal, her Jackson’s Whole Libertarian, and her Cetaganda baroquely hierarchal. If Mile’s home planet Barrayar is still emerging from patriarchy and remains a monarchy, these traits are not depicted with any approval, but provide an opportunity for character and social dilemmas – as well, of course, as inviting a comparison with our own culture.

However, while Bujold’s attitudes are refreshing, they are only part of her appeal. A good deal of Bujold’s appeal is her characters: Miles’ mother Cordelia, a Betan who marries the man she defeats in the first book of the series; his father Aral, leader of the Barrayar progressives and a regent who confounds expectations by giving up power; his emperor Gregor, who grows up thoughtful and humane; his cousin Ivan, born to privilege, but redeemed by his laziness and basic decency;; the genetically modified super-soldier Taura, whose fangs conceal a girlish heart, and a dozen more, all of whom are given a convincing inner complexity and their own voice. Bujold even manages to give Miles’ clone Mark a voice that is both reminiscent yet yet different from Miles’ own when he is the viewpoint character.

Then there is Miles himself, an over-achiever compensating for his deformities, by upbringing half an aristocratic Barrayaran and half a liberal Betan. Full of self-doubts, he still emerges as a leader like Lawrence of Arabia who inspires everyone around him to greater efforts than they could manage by themselves. So far during the course of the series, he has gone from the founder and leader of a mercenary fleet to an imperial troubleshooter invalided out of active service, and from a perpetual bachelor to a man in his early thirties forced very much against his will to slow down because of his injuries and find a new life as a husband and father. All the aspects of his personality are not on display at the same time, but overall, Miles emerges as one of the most complex and satisfyingly complete characters in science fiction.

Another important aspect of Bujold’s success is her writing ability. Cover blurbs frequently describe her as witty, and it is true that her characters often banter in a way reminiscent of Dorothy Sayer’s Harriet Vane and Peter Wimsey. Also, unless I am mistaken, Bujold  often drops allusions to everything from Shakespeare’s As You Like It and the first meeting of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson to John Cleese and Connie Booth’s Fawlty Towers.

All the same, “wit” is not quite the word I would use to describe Bujold’s writing. At times, the comedy is broad as when the woman Miles loves is running away from a banquet at his ancestral home just as his parents return home and he introduces her with, “Mother, Father, let me introduce – she’s getting away!” Similarly, his cousin Ivan interrupts his vows during a marriage of convenience to ask his bride, “what did you say your name was again?”

More often, though, her writing has a wry, even facetious tone that an intelligent person might use to themselves when worried or self-doubting. For instance, here are Miles’ thoughts when he learns that another man has written poetry to the same woman who fled his banquet:

Good God, Enrique was writing poetry to her? Yes, and why hadn’t he thought of poetry? Besides the obvious reason of his absence of talent in that direction. He wondered if she’d like to read a really clever combat-drop mission plan, instead. Sonnets, damn. All he’d ever come up with in that line were limericks.

Obviously, Miles does not mean his thoughts literally. Yet, equally obviously, their not-quite successful lightness is an attempt to cope with the worries that the news causes him.

Bujold’s humor is responsible for the least typical yet strongest novel in the series, A Civil Campaign, which can best be described as a mixture of a Shakespearean comedy and a Georgette Heyer romance. In A Civil Campaign, Miles has fallen in love with a recently widowed woman. Reluctant to intrude on her grief, he decides to court her in secret, while telling everyone except the woman herself about his intentions. Needless to say, everything that can go wrong does go wrong, yet somehow all the plot strands resolve, and at the end, both Miles and the Emperor are both facing marriage. The book is a mixture of all Bujold’s styles of humor, and the only book in years that I have re-read within a couple of weeks of finishing it for the first time.

Having read the complete series to date, I am now embarrassed to have snubbed it for so long. But ignorance is its own punishment, and I can only reflect that my judgment of Bujold’s work by its marketing has deprived me of years of pleasure. Walton, I conclude, is entirely right: Bujold is a writer not only worth reading, but re-reading as well.

I can hardly wait.

In 1989, Ursula K. Le Guin spoke at Simon Fraser University. During the question period, amid a lively discussion of feminism, a young woman – probably a grad student – asked with an intense earnestness, “But, Ursula, where do men fit in?”

I’ll never forget Le Guin’s answer. With a shrug that gently but firmly dismissed the entire question, she said, “Why, where ever they want.”

She had nothing against men, she went on to explain. There were many men in her life, including in her family, and she would never dream of telling them what to do.

However, what stays with me is that initial response. At the time, I noted that the questioner had forgotten that, although Le Guin was a feminist, she was also an anarchist.

More recently, however, I find myself remembering Le Guin’s comment as a contrast to the comments on certain modern feminist blogs that seem all too eager to tell male supporters exactly what they must do.

I am not talking, of course, about the common sense changes that a male sympathizer needs to make if their convictions are to be taken seriously. So far as I am concerned, learning how to avoid monopolizing the conversation is not only a sign of feminist sympathies in a man, but a sign of maturity in anyone. It seems only common sense, as well, that having a man as a representative of a feminist group is poor tactics and creates credibility problems.

What I am referring to is the viewpoint that implicitly excludes the idea of male feminism by referring to male supporters as allies. In the circles I am talking about, you can be homosexual, transsexual, or queer and not have your feminist credentials questioned, but only men need to be referred to by a euphemism – a habit that marks them permanently as outsiders.

Allies, this school of thought makes clear, are supposed to be well-disciplined subordinates, accepting instruction in the proper way to be supportive, and never questioning or criticizing feminist perspectives. “You’re not being a good ally when you’re telling members of the oppressed group you’re supposedly allied with how to behave,” Julie Pagano states, but, at the same time, “Being an ally does not shield you from criticism when you make mistakes.” The fear seems to be that allies have no sense of discretion, and, if left unchecked for a moment, every single one of them would burst into an opera of mansplaining and interrupting their betters.

Allies are good for swelling crowd shots, and for giving money, but any sense that they might belong is never considered. As for the idea that they could make any intellectual contribution – that is an absurdity dismissed out of hand.

Whether Le Guin today would reply in the same way to that long-ago question, I have no idea. Nor do I particularly care. What matters to me is that it reminds me that I have had an emotional and ethical stake in feminism since I was fourteen, and that I am long past the need to twist myself into an obedient ally to meet someone else’s standard.

It reminds me, too, that you can’t associate with any activist group without realizing that everyone who supposedly shares your views is not necessarily likable. No doubt the circles I am talking about suppose that their lectures on being an ally will produce better supporters, when their real result is likely to force potential supporters to the conclusion that nothing they do will ever be good enough. But who cares? Feminism has survived eco-feminism, so it can certainly survive the idea that allies can be controlled. Such things simply happen from time to time. Besides, there are still plenty of other feminist individuals and causes I am happy to support.

At any rate, I am not dependent on belonging to a group to make a contribution. As a writer, my most immediate contributions to a feminist future are to be an observer of women in computing, and to do what I can to see that the accomplishments of women get the reporting they deserve. These are tasks that not many people are doing, and ones that I do well, so I am proud to continue doing them.

So call me a partner if you like. Call me a supporter, a sympathizer, or even a fellow-traveler. If your world view allows, call me a male feminist.

But, whatever you do, don’t call me a feminist ally. I’m here for a cause, and that cause is not to obey you.

I knew that marrying Trish was a good idea when we both chose the same moment to propose. Better yet, we both had the same condition: she wouldn’t change her name.

This condition was more complicated that it would have been for most people. Trish had been recently widowed when we met, and she had changed her name because her first husband wanted to. However, she had changed her views since then, and didn’t want to go through updating her identity a second time, whether she took my name or returned to her original surname. Besides, she considered her first marriage an important moment in her maturation. The choice seemed completely personal, and we imagined that nobody would think it anybody’s business except ours.

We couldn’t have been more wrong. Everybody felt entitled to advise us – and most wasted no time in telling us that we were wrong. One of Trish’s co-workers, for example, proclaimed in the middle of the office that it was a woman’s “honor and privilege to change her name.” Others insisted that having separate names would be confusing for any children, and they would be stigmatized, or assumed to be her first husband’s – even though, at the time, a couple’s children automatically took their father’s name.

Strangest of all were those who chose to be insulted on my behalf. Although I had made my agreement very clear, some friends and relatives insisted that I was simply putting on a brave front. The choice showed a mental reservation about our marriage, they claimed; Trish was showing a commitment to her first husband that she was refusing to make to me. I should be jealous, even though he was dead.

I did my best to explain. Whenever the matter came up, I said that Trish’s first marriage was part of who she was – that, without it, she might not even be the person I loved. I suggested that I would be selfish to ask her to hide the fact of her first marriage – and that, although I might expect a preference, the choice was really hers.

But nothing I said made any difference. As late as the wedding rehearsal, people were telling us how wrong the decision was, and why it should concern me. I spent the night before the ceremony writing a letter for the priest to read to family members who objected, but whether he ever did, I have no idea. I suspect he may have thought inaction the best course, to let the issue peter out, since we obviously weren’t going to change our minds.

And, in fact, that was what happened. Every once and a while, a family member or two would disinter the issue as another grievance in the middle of another argument, but mostly it didn’t matter. It was even mentioned a couple of weeks ago, although Trish has been dead four years now.

My view now is unchanged from what it was at the time. I marvel at how free people feel to interfere with a personal choice, and I’m left in no doubt that Trish and I made the right choice. The custom of changing a woman’s name when she marries has always seemed dehumanizing to me, and I am proud that we resisted it, and maybe helped in our own small way to make it less of an issue.

When I was in Grade Six, I was precocious and outspoken. My mother, worried that I might be rude at school, asked my teacher if I was a problem in class. “Not at all,” my teacher replied. “He’s always so polite when he corrects me.” He then went on to compare me with a classmate whose corrections were far less diplomatic.

This story, which I heard about hours after it happened, was my first indication of the power of politeness. It taught me that not only could I get away with saying almost anything, so long as I said it politely enough, but that people would listen to a polite comment where they would close their ears a rude one. It’s a perspective that is rare today, when many people consider expressions of anger their right and politeness a form of weakness. Yet the truth is, it’s only one of the advantages that makes politeness (or at least its facade) worth cultivating.

No doubt as a born and bred Canadian, I value politeness more than most people, but I also consider my perspective a pragmatic one. For example, most of the time, you get more cooperation from people with politeness. This observation is especially true when you are dealing with those in the service industry, or others who are usually taken for granted.

Being polite to such people signals that you are viewing them as people, not just bit players in your personal drama. Often, they appreciate the effort enough that if you ask for something unusual, such as a substitution on the menu, they will be give it to you – even if the menu clearly states that no substitutions are allowed. If you are in a store, they are likely to go look in the back for what you want instead of simply telling you that all they have is on the shelf. If the other person is a customs officer, or someone else with potential authority over you, then you will often be forgiven minor infringements of the regulations, simply because you made a small bit of effort and treated them as human.

Should a situation descend into an argument, the appearance of politeness remains useful. Screaming insults may be personally satisfying, but politeness has a way of disarming your opponent. They may shout at you, but shouting at someone who remains polite and apparently calm is strangely unsatisfying. You are not responding the way they expect, and before very long they are likely to either stomp off in frustration or else start listening to you. Almost always, the calm person is the one who controls the situation, and looks best to the audience – and, in the end, it is their perspective and solutions that are adopted.

If all else fails, you can always adopt the kind of icy politeness that the upper class English are so good at – the kind that suggests it is beneath your dignity to argue with your opponent, and that to talk to them at all is a major concession on your part. Better yet, if you can throw in the impression that the politeness is an effort and you are near to going berserk, politeness can be more unsettling than screaming and breaking chairs, for the simple reason that you are leaving your anger to your opponent’s imagination, and what is imagined is frequently more unsettling than what is actually observed.

Politeness in these circumstances takes practice, and might even be against your natural inclination. But the reality is that politeness is far less passive than most people imagine. Treat it as a piece of meta-communication or body language, and few tactics are more successful.

Far from being a sign of weakness, politeness signals that you are the one in control, the pleasant and the logical one, the mature person where others are acting as children. The fact that few of your opponents will ever realize how you are outgaming them only makes your choice of tactics that much more satisfying.

Many artists in their mid-Sixties are past their best work. Their art no longer engages them, and what made them original has grown stale, expressed only in minor works. Then there is Tahltan/Tlingit artist Dempsey Bob, whose face grows boyish with enthusiasm when he discusses his work, and who can be heard fretting about how to find time to realize all his plans. At sixty-six, Bob is as passionate as ever, and, as the work in “North,” his current show at the Equinox Gallery demonstrates in every piece, still at the height of his powers.

Part of the reason that Bob not only survives as an artist but flourishes after nearly five decades is his belief in constant development. Bob’s roots may be in First Nations traditions, but, firm in the conviction that these roots are one of the great artistic traditions of the world, he has not hesitated to explore in other directions as well. In particular, in the last decade, he has been involved in cultural exchanges with Maori artists, visiting New Zealand over half a dozen times to study a culture with striking similarities to his own. Somehow, his latest show seems to incorporate all such influences, at times suggesting everything from a Mayan glyph to European traditions while remaining an extension of his roots.

IMG_20140607_142325

Another sign of Bob’s diversity is that perhaps a quarter of the show is cast bronze. These bronzes are the product of a period that Bob went through 5-10 years ago in which he concentrated almost entirely on works in metal, doing little in wood except for large scale commissions in which he was apparently more supervisor than artist. Varying from a modern coffee table to traditional masks, Bob’s works in metal would seem major accomplishments in any other context. However, hung next to his works in wood, they seem lesser works. The lines that seem so effortless in cedar appear rigid and slightly forced in metal. Just as importantly, the relative uniformity of the metal seems strangely bare compared to the grain of the wood.

bronze1

frog-table

Bob’s wood pieces are impressive for several reasons. To start with, Bob leaves himself no place to hide, rarely using paint beyond a pair of black pupils here or red lips there. One or two pieces are even left unpainted altogether. The rare time that he uses larger regions of colors, as in the “Raven and the Box of Daylight” bentwood box, the result is all the more striking for its rarity. Mostly, Bob has only the wood to work with, and he rises to the challenge consistently with finishing details that rarely reveal the touch of a chisel or a vice.

beaver

bentwood-box

Another noticeable feature of Bob’s work is that his carving is deep and intricate – deeper and more intricate than just about any First Nations carver of the last seventy years. These characteristics are a sign of mastery, because, as often as not, they mean working against the grain, risking cracking or breakages in order to achieve the desired shape. Yet the taking of such pains is worth it, because the depths add another dimension to the carving, casting shadows that become as much a part of the sculpture as the wood itself, even though they are always changing with positioning or the time of the day. They share these features with his metal sculptures, of course, but their softer edges complement the wood in a way that the sharper edges of bronze never manage.

Bob’s subject matter is often traditional. But although he sometimes produces a relatively ordinary work as “Eagle Leader,” more often he takes a traditional shape to produce his own twist. His spirit catcher is several times larger than any that a shaman could ever have used on a sick bed. So, too, is his helmet, which is perhaps the standout of the show.

eagle-leader

helmet

Similarly, his transformation mask might be called post-modern. Like a traditional transformation mask, it is a mask within a mask. However, unlike a traditional mask, it is not fully rounded, but has one side that is flat so that it can be easily hung on the wall. Its shape amounts to a comment on the difference between a mask that is considered a work of art and one that a dancer would wear in the traditional winter ceremonies. After all, when the function has changed, why not change the shape? Bob’s answer is, perhaps, quietly humorous in its practicality, but also strikingly original.

transformation-mask
A photographer enthused to me at the opening of “North” that the way that Bob has made international influences his own while retaining ties to his origins would be instantly recognized by his ancestors of two centuries ago. He would have to explain that poles were rarer today than then, but once they understood that the stories were now depicted instead on sculptures hung on the walls, they would approve his work without reservation.

I understood immediately what he meant. Although the renaissance of First Nations art in the Pacific Northwest has come long distances in the last seventy years, only a handful of artists reach the complexity and absorption of other influences found in the nineteenth century. However, “North” proves, once and for all, that Bob is unquestionably one of those handful. In fact, in his mastery and extension of tradition, Bob just might be the greatest carver that the renaissance has produced.

Seeing two dozen of Bob’s works together is exhausting and inspiring at the same time. I am unlikely to ever afford his work, but knowing it exists is a comfort all the same – an overwhelming a reminder of what great art can be that leaves me wondering why we ever settle for anything less.

In theory, I have no trouble with trigger warnings. If labeling a movie or blog article will make life easier for the traumatized, it would be callous to oppose the practice. The only trouble is, in practice, I am skeptical about their usefulness. Before trigger warnings appear on art and on every university course’s syllabus, as some are suggesting, I think that a few questions that nobody is asking need to answered.

Namely:

  • Aren’t trigger warnings redundant? After all, the title of a work often tells you what to expect; you should not, for example, be surprised that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart deals with upsetting subjects. In cases in which the title is less descriptive, cover blurbs and introductions should let readers know what to expect. Moreover, readers who prefer to avoid upsetting subjects can often find plot summaries and study guides online.
  • Do the traumatized want trigger warnings? Here and there, I have seem approving comments from people who describe themselves as traumatized. However, I have also seen comments from trauma victims denouncing the whole idea. “We’re not all trying to avoid recovery,” one poster responded to the idea of trigger warnings on a mailing list for people with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. On the same list, another poster commented, “If someone can identify a trigger, I sort of expect them to be working on coping skills to deal with it.” Assuming that all comments are legitimate, opinion seems divided, and the risk of making patronizing decisions in the name of others seems very real.
  • Are trigger warnings the best way to assist the traumatized? Or would efforts be better spent helping to make the traumatized understand and practice coping mechanisms?
  • Are trigger warnings too simplistic to do any good? Sue’s murder of her children in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure has far more potential to upset readers than the deaths at the end of The Great Gatsby (In fact, I have noticed that large numbers of students miss the deaths in The Great Gatsby until a teacher mentions them). In general, too, a verbal description is usually far less disturbing than a visual scene. Yet I have seen too many trigger warnings that simply observe that rape or violence is forthcoming, with no effort to take context into account. Perhaps triggers need a rating system if they are to be any use.
  • Are trigger warnings trigger warnings in themselves? The very idea that something needs a warning can, in itself, trigger a traumatic reaction. This reaction could be worse than the one the warning is meant to help trauma victims avoid, because what is imagined is often more powerful than what is actually encountered – which is why horror writers often delay the appearance of the monster until near the end of a story.
  • Do trigger warnings have any potentially harmful effects? Supporters of trigger warnings assume that they are empowering the traumatized. But in the absence of evidence, it seems equally probable that trigger warnings could encourage trauma victims to develop a pattern of avoidance when they need be learning coping mechanisms. In steering the traumatized away from anything that reminds them of what they have experienced, we risk steering them away from material that might help desensitize them to the triggers.
  • Is there any scientific evidence that trigger warnings work? Over the last few months, I have been unable to find any scientific study that either confirms their effectiveness or debunks them. The only evidence I have found appears to be entirely anecdotal or rationalization based on wishful thinking.

All these questions come down to a concern that trigger warnings are being advocated without sufficient thought or expertise. I have serious doubts that amateurs should be involving themselves in matters of such complexity, but if anybody is going to play psychiatrist, they should remember one of the fundamental aphorisms of medicine for over two thousand years: “First, do no harm.”

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