Saturday, March 29, 2014

This Time for Sure!

Title: Gifts
Author: D. G. Grace
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Print Length: 351 pages
Seller:  Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
Release date: March 2014
So, just over two weeks ago, I posted that I'd  published Gifts in the Amazon Kindle Store. Now, I'm waiting for a half-dozen reviews that are supposed to be in progress (friends, bloggers, others).

Incidentally, I forgot to mention at the time that—if you have an Amazon Prime account—you can borrow the book for free via the Kindle Online lending Library. If you're not sure about being among the first to read a book with no reviews, the Amazon page's Look inside function lets you read the first two and a half chapters of teh book for free. I know, that doesn't soud like much, but quite a lot happens in the first two chapters: pyrotechnic magic, major physical transformations, gratuitous nudity. I hate opening a book and seeing nothing happen for forty pages, so I was careful to start pretty much in medias res.

Honestly, though, I wish now that I'd waited a teeny bit before announcing, mainly because I did such a crappy job of formatting on the first go 'round. I thought I was following some instructions from a would-be Kindle guru. I think those instructions were questionable at best. I soon learned, contrary to the advice I read, that converting from MS Word to HTML and then—after almost a week of code cleanup—uploading that HTML to the Amazon KDP site is not a good methodology. It's a bad methodology. It's a huge waste of time and results in a butt-ugly output.

Enter Calibre, the beautiful Open Source freeware brainchild of Kovid Goyal and (as usual for such projects) numerous contributors. Calibre is available in Windows (32 & 64 bit), Linux, Mac, and portable  flavors. The Windows version requires no build, loads promptly with Installshield, has a brilliantly intuitive GUI, and never requires any command line shenanigans. Calibre deftly converts DOCX or HTML files to EPUB or MOBI (as well as PDF, AZW, and several more formats), and the program provides its own previewer to verify the conversinos.. The Calibre downloads page also gives us a convenient means to send support to the development effort (via PayPal). Lately the bug fixes have been coming out at a regular clip, so I think they deserve all we monetary support we can muster. I realize I'm new to this ebook production circus, but seriously, if you're going to publish your own ebooks and you don't have the time or the computer chops to use the Kindle tools Amazon provides (or if like me, you cringe at the thought of compiling anything, get Calibre.

Monday, March 24, 2014

My Dangerous Manifesto

Ansel giving a high five
Back in 1967, Harlan Ellison forever altered the face, the texture, the flavor—the very core of speculative fiction (SF). He managed this sea change not by writing a radically new type of SF story (he'd done that two years earlier with his publication of "'Repent, Harlequin!'Said the Ticktockman'" in Galaxy magazine). Nor did this change come with the coining or refinement of the term speculative fiction. Robert A. Heinlein likely invented speculative fiction as an alternative to the more limited-sounding science fiction (Heinlein insisted the term did not include fantasy, but words have a mind of their own). No, Harlan brought about his revolution by publishing an anthology of original SF stories, the first Dangerous Visions anthology.

I have, on occasion, heard arguments that Dangerous Visions initiated the so-called New Wave of SF (nope, the Brits already had that well underway by '67), or that it brought avant-garde and postmodernist sensibilities of the New Wave to American SF (no again, that distinction probably belongs to Damon Knight and his Orbit stable). Nor do I accept the claim that Dangerous Visions dragged SF up from the pulpy gutter genres and into the blinding light and rarefied atmosphere of Literature. See, that's really what the whole New Wave movement was all about, so—any such effects from DV would be little more than reinforcement.

No, Dangerous Visions really accomplished something more basic: DV was the Lolita of SF. Just as Lolita had done for mainstream literature—and as the anthology's title and introduction suggests, DV freed SF of many of the intractable taboos in the SF genre at the time. When Ellison put out his call for stories, he specified stories that the existing venues, magazines and anthologies, would not accept for publication. He wanted controversy, wanted mores twisted and taboos shattered. Critics in the intervening years have differed on how successful Ellison was in this regard. Quite a few editors then and since have claimed that nothing Ellison published in DV was really so beyond the pale as to be unpublishable in mainstream SF magazines. To be blunt: this is utter nonsense. Consider just four of the original 33 DV stories:
  • Samuel R. Delany's "Aye, and Gomorrah" 
  • Harlan Ellison's "The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World"
  • Theodore Sturgeon's "If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?"
  • Philip Jose Farmer's Riders of the Purple Wage
The Delany and Farmer won awards, but the idea of finding either tale in a mainstream print SF magazine—today, let alone back in 1967—is laughable. Delany's short story examines humanity's seemingly inexhaustible ability to discover and exploit paraphilias. I can think of a few online zines that, today, might—but only just might—publish "Aye, and Gomorrah." But even for those, I wonder, would they publish such a story if it hadn't already won acclaim? How many SF stories have you seen in the past decade that described a new paraphilia? As for the Farmer novella—set in a future society that encourages parents to show affection for children by indulging them with oral sexual gratification—hah! No way. Likewise Sturgeon's tale of a world that builds its society upon a foundation of universal incest. Not a tale you're likely to see in any of the pulps or the online zines.

Okay, you might be thinking, but that's sex. Sex is a difficult sell for a lot of people. It can be difficult navigating the landmines pre-planted in any sexual landscape. What one writer sees as character essential sexual exposition, another sees as erotica, and still another wants to label pornography. Frankly, this kind of argument always sets off my bullshit detector. Sexuality is a major piece of the human experience. All great works of literature are about two things: living and dying. And without sex, nobody's doing much living. But to silence that prudery alarm for just a moment—well, that's why I included the Ellison in my list of four.

Ellison's story, a sequel to Robert Bloch's "A Toy for Juliette," about a future so starved for diversion as to bring Jack the Ripper into their midsts, breaks a lot of gore and violence taboos. Now, there have been a few zines—both print and online—that specialized in wetworks for the splatterpunk set, but Ellison's story doesn't belong in such fetishy company. "Prowler" is a deeply moralistic and philosophical story. The violence, labeled "gratuitous" by guardians of that particular taboo, is an essential component of the story. The depth of depravity of the violence is, in effect, part of the point. Still, this is not the kind of story I expect to see in print or in any of the current crop of online zines. Many of them say they'll accept violence "if the story justifies it," but I don't see much evidence of that claim in the stories they publish.

So, the good news, as Lolita did for mainstream publishing, DV opened the SF press to controversy by showing that you can discuss sex and violence and other taboo topics without producing smut. DV also demonstrated that you can discuss religion and bigotry and drugs and human trafficking, that you can include gay protagonists, and consider the possibility that the USA is not some kind of inevitable thought-leader in the world (and worlds) of tomorrow, all without the world coming to an end. In fact, DV showed that many readers want to see controversy, want to see taboos bent, want to see rules broken.

This was the seminal SF work of my youth. When I read DV in the 70s, the sequel—Again, Dangerous Visions—was already in print, and Ellison was already purchasing stories for the never-to-see-print Last Dangerous Visions. It's difficult to express exactly how important DV was for me. I was a weird kid (I know, not much has changed). I started reading when I was three. In kindergarten, while the teacher was trying to teach the rest of the class to recognize the difference between lower-case and upper-case letters, I was sneaking off to the school library to read science books. Until I was fifteen, I read mostly non-fiction. I didn't see the point of fiction. I figured, if it's fiction, it's not true, so what's the point. At fifteen, a teacher introduced me to Shakespeare and Dickens and science fiction. The science fiction was revelatory. In the next three years, I read everything I could find in the genre. Some I loved, some I disliked, some seemed downright silly.

Dangerous Visions opened new vistas for me. This kind of SF, writing to the controversies instead of around them, finding the taboos and bending, twisting, repurposing, or just flat breaking the damn things—nothing made a story more alive, more meaningful. Though DV had been in print for eight years when I discovered it, I believed that concept had to be the future of SF. This was what I wanted to read. This was what I wanted to write. This was all I ever wanted to write. Dangerous fiction. I read and found that, this was what all my favorite writers were doing. Harlan Ellison, James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon), Ursula K. LeGuin, J. G. Ballard, Norman Spinrad, Robert Silverberg, Samuel R. Delany, Joanna Russ—all their best works were dangerous fiction, controversial, thought-provoking, at times down exasperating or even downright maddening.

That was forty years ago. Today, the pulps are fewer, but the online zines have expanded into new spaces, so at least the number of markets has expanded. SF is everywhere. And not just in the genre zines. These days blockbuster movies, more often than not, are SF. Sadly—in my opinion, anyway—science fiction, fantasy, and horror have been forced back into their genres. Most science fiction zines won't take fantasy or horror, and vice versa. Even though the ghettos have achieved a state of gentrification—a lot more great so-called literary writers today (Chabon, Lethem, Mitchell) spend time in those ghettos—they're still ghettos. Thanks to a number of movie and TV producers like Cameron and Abrams, science fiction has lost some of its stigma. It's not just "that escapist crap for teenagers" anymore. Sadly, gentrification has also taken a lot of bite out of science fiction—even more out of fantasy and horror. If you disagree, I have two words for you: sparkly vampires. Young Adult, Middle Grade, and New Adult are capturing the largest share of fantasy and horror, and it looks like they're snagging a huge chunk of SF readers (consider such recent box office fare as Ender's Game and After Earth, or just look at the submission guidelines for Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show). Sure, thirteen-year-olds need fun stuff to read, too, but I think they already have more than enough of the market. Besides, we all know the Harry Potter, Hunger Games, and Twilight readers aren't all tweens and teens. All that gentrified science fiction and fantasy could do with a serious dose of dangerous fiction.

I recently published an urban fantasy novel (Gifts) via the Amazon KDP. A friend of mine said, "But I thought you wanted to write science fiction?" I do. I also want to write fantasy and horror. I also enjoy dabbling in magic fiction and fairy tales, and I've considered possibly writing in the weird and slipstream genres. I want to write SF: speculative fiction. And I want to write for adults. I want to write dangerous fiction. I want to tell stories, but I also want to make people think. I've always felt the best stories are the ones that refuse to end when you put down the book.

But I didn't write this to talk about my own writing. I want to see someone take up the mantle Mr. Ellison dropped when Last Dangerous Visions fell through. I realize, considering Mr. Ellison's litigious history, only a masochist would try to publish a volume called Anything Dangerous Visions or Dangerous Visions Anything, but there must be a way to bring this rich conceptual field back to life without using those two words in the title. Come on, all you courageous editors, all you adventurous anthologists—I know you're out there somewhere. Let's start publishing some taboo-busting, envelope-pushing, mind-warping SF. Live dangerously.

And for Christ's sake, can someone please help Gordon Van Gelder set up a goddamned online submission system and drag the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction into the Twenty-first Century so we can stop killing so many trees?

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Triggers—A Question for Rape Survivors

Trigger warnings—does anyone remember approximately when those things started showing up on Web pages and in bulletin boards? As far as I can recall, I only started seeing them about a decade ago, when I subscribed to a mental health forum for reasons unrelated to this topic. The general rule of them there was, before you initiate a discussion that might cause any sort of traumatic reliving of an experience, you had to add a trigger warning (also called a trigger, TW, spoiler, or spoiler warning) to the subject line of your message. Common trigger warnings there included:








In recent years, even outside of mental health, addiction, and survivors-support sites, trigger warnings started showing up more and more frequently. The three that I can recall seeing most often are trigger warnings for rape, for domestic violence, and for battlefield trauma. This makes sense. Aside from rape and domestic violence, the most common source of PTSD is combat, and the USA is just ending twelve years of war in two separate countries on the other side of the world.

I understand the purported purpose of the trigger warnings. They're supposedly helping PTSD sufferers to avoid any descriptive material that could trigger a painful recollection and, worst case, reliving of the source stressor. In fact, I've employed trigger warnings myself. If you go to the Amazon page for my recently published Urban Fantasy, Gifts, and scroll down to the Book Description, you'll see that the first line reads:

[Trigger Warning - drug-facilitated, forcible, and violent rape.]

Generally, I have two qualms about this whole "trigger warning" concept. First and foremost, if all you're doing in your message is referring to yourself as a "rape survivor," what's the point of the TW? I mean, if we're really afraid of the mere word, you've already stated the nasty trigger word in the subject line. This, in my experience, describes a good 66% or more of the documents I've seen with a TW in the subject line.  Seriously, if you're only going to mention the word once in your letter, haven't you already done just as much harm by naming the trigger in the warning? How, then, does your warning help anyone?

My second qualm will take a little background. Bear with me for a few more lines.

Recently, I was speaking with a therapist friend of mine, and she told me the most successful PTSD treatment available today—providing the greatest notable relief and the longest-standing successes—is a new form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) called "Prolonged Exposure" (PE) therapy. PE isn't really a new idea, just a revamped and more carefully modulated version of immersion therapy. Like all immersion therapy, the goal of PE is to get patients to a point where they can see, hear, read details of events similar to their own PTSD source without suffering any of the usual ill consequences (dissociation, hallucination, loss of sleep, loss of appetite, depression). Or, to put it more bluntly, the survivor of violence should be able to hear, see, or read about violence similar to what they suffered without reliving the experience.

Looking around on the Internet, the best lay-description I could find for PE is the one on the VA's National Center for PTSD. You can follow the link for more details, but the bare bones of PE is the following four steps:
  1. Education - they teach you about the next three bullets.
  2. Breathing - relaxation through breath control—something like Qi-Gong for beginners.
  3. Immersion - in dribs and drabs, they start feeding you images like what you experienced to cause your PTSD. This might include stories, videos, newscasts, or even play-acting traumatic experiences.
  4. Talking through it - this includes talking about your own experience and about those immersion exercises. This is where the actual therapy takes place.
My first reaction to PE was: Awesome sauce! I know some people who could really benefit from something like PE. Some of them have been suffering for over a decade. Sadly, like most psychotherapy, I quickly learned that PE comes with no guarantees. Although their success rates have been dramatic (I've heard and seen reports of upwards of 80%, which is phenomenal considering the variables involved), PE does not work for everyone.
My second reaction was to begin wondering about Trigger Warnings—in particular, my own trigger warning. If the most successful treatment for PTSD involves controlled immersion, is the widespread use of trigger warnings—the systematic conditioning of survivors to avoid reading about violence—is this doing PTSD sufferers a disservice? Now, I'm not so naïve as to think stumbling upon vivid descriptions of a violent sexual assault could ever be at all therapeutic for a rape survivor, but I have to wonder: when I provide that trigger warning—that little note saying "rape survivors should go no further"—am I perhaps circumventing a survivor's autonomous development of coping mechanisms? Am I protecting people or being overly-protective?

Understand, I'm not arguing for the elimination of all trigger warnings. I would just like to see a little healthy debate on the topic. So, whether you're a survivor or not, I'd like to hear from you. Where do you stand on the use of trigger warnings? Who should employ them? When? Where?


Thursday, March 13, 2014

O Frabjous Day!

Title: Gifts
Author: D. G. Grace
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Print Length: 342 pages
Seller:  Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
Release date: March 2014
Announcement time. Gods, finally.

Almost two years ago, in just under a month, I wrote the first draft of the novel Gifts, which is now for sale in the Amazon Kindle store.

After running through a few rounds of edits, I browbeat my wife and several friends into reading and re-reading the novel. I got some great criticism.

Other stuff happened.

So, finally, with all my revisions completed, the novel reformatted for Kindle, and armed with a striking cover created by the brilliant Kathy Grace, I committed my novel to Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing.

I am proud to say Gifts is not your typical Urban Fantasy: no crime-fighting werewolves, no sexy sparkling vampires, and no zombies of any sort. Urban Fantasy does, however, provide an excellent medium for a  gritty, occasionally violent examination of themes of sex, gender, and orientation.

[Trigger warning: drug-facilitated, forcible, and violent rapes]

For me, the fun part is (mostly) over. The novel is written. Now the really dirty work of marketing begins. I'll be querying reviewers who are interested in blogging about new Urban Fantasies. If you know anyone like that who might be interested, please let me know. I'm already overwhelmed by how many book review blogs are out there.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Sweet Mystery of Life - eh, not quite

[Trigger warning - rape]

A friend of mine recently posted a Facebook link to an excellent article on Huffington Post (yeah, they still occasionally get one right). The piece, A "Rape Culture" Tutorial for Naysayers, by Toula Drimonis provides an excellent outline of the history and pervasiveness of rape culture. She opens her article with a description of the kind of replies she inevitably gets from well-meaning (mostly male) rape culture deniers any time she posts an article showing that rape culture is alive and showing no sign of weakening. She calls such replies "mansplaining" (not her coinage, but certainly appropriate to these circumstances). I call them the knee-jerk defense of the privileged.

I guess it should come as no surprise that the first response my friend received to posting the link came from a well-meaning rape-culture denier. Said denier (who, yes, denies being a denier) made it clearl he had not read all of the article by suggesting replacing the term "rape culture" with "street harassment culture." His objection to "rape culture," he said, is that the phrase is misandry and therefore politically unwise in terms of garnering support from male allies. When I pointed out that he was engaging in precisely the behavior described in the article, he accused me of delivering an ad hominem attack. My first thought upon reading his claim was, "O shit! He can read my mind!" I promise, I did not call him any of the things I was thinking—not even dumbass.

(*Sigh* Okay, I admit. I actually did call him a dumbass. Repeatedly. But I erased every use of that and similar terms before I published any of my comments. I double-checked.)

In part, I have to admit that I get it. I understand the sourfaced response some men throw back every time they hear "rape culture." Some of it. Not all of it. Certainly not all of it.

I don't get the jackass judges who recently allowed rapists in the US and Canada to walk basically because they thought the victims in question, in words they carefully avoided making explicit, were asking for it. I don't get Congress allowing the rape culture within our own military to run rampant. I don't get Candy Crowley of CNN lamenting that the Steubenville rapists are "poor boys" whose "lives are over" because of the notoriety of the Steubenville rape trial. I don't get the assholes who respond to every woman who complains of sexual harassment by posting suggestions that they just need to be raped. I don't get the guys who feel they have a right to treat women (verbally, physically, and legally) like subhuman sex toys.

I DO get that no man wants to feel he's being held accountable for a crime he didn't commit and wouldn't think of committing. More specifically, when I first heard them, some of the claims about rape culture seemed a bit far-fetched. One such claim was the repeated reference to the pervasiveness of  "rape jokes."

Now, please don't mistake my position. I fully understood that such a pervasive presence would be poisonous. If men (women too, really) learn to think of rape as something comical, it makes it very difficult to take rape accusations seriously. If rape is something laughable, why should anyone ever want to prosecute?

No. My problem with claims about rape humor was something different. I couldn't believe it existed. I am at a loss to explain my own blindness, but I just couldn't think of any examples of anything you could call a rape joke.

Rape jokes. It hurts just saying it. I get a sour, nauseated pain in the pit of my stomach at the thought of laughing at a rape victim. How the hell could anyone tell a rape joke? To hell with the joke teller. How could an audience sit still for a joke, a story that ends with someone being raped, and laugh? Sure, I know humor can be pretty damned brutal at times, (Q - How many men does it take to tile a bathroom? A- Depends how thick you slice them.) but rape humor? I know lots of insensitive jokes. I had no difficulty digging around in my memory and dredging up jokes belittling women, men, queers, transgender people, various races and creeds. Blond jokes. Pollack jokes. Aggie jokes. But rape jokes? Really? I had some vague notion that we might be talking about variations on the dumb blonde joke, in which some mentally defective woman perhaps gives herself up sexually but erroneously believes she's done something clever. But, no, I couldn't even come up with anything like that.

Finally, I remembered one. A blatant rape joke. And I was devastated.

The joke in question is one of the principal set-pieces in a major motion picture. I've seen that movie dozens of times. It's generally a very funny movie, and one of the biggest jokes in the movie—established near the film's beginning but only realized near its climax (seriously, no pun intended)—is a rape. The movie?

Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein.

I'm sure anyone familiar with the movie knows the joke (although it now feels pretty uncomfortable calling it that). The set up for the joke begins with Madeleine Kahn's first appearance as Dr. Frankenstein's fiancée, Elizabeth. She's shown to be controlling and touch-averse, a bit of an ice princess. They part, touching elbows in farewell because Elizabeth won't let Frankenstein touch her hair, her face, or her dress.

Jump ahead to Transylvannia, Dr. Frankenstein decides to build the creature according to his father's specifications. In accordance with those specs, the creature has to be oversized. Frankenstein's assistant Inga (Teri Garr) notes: "His shvann-shstucker will be enormous." Shvann-shtucker (sorry if that's not the right spelling) is a bastardized scrap of language, combining a Yiddish slang word for vagina (shvann) with a bit of faux-German tacked on to mean sticker.

Later, when Elizabeth arrives in Transylvannia to spend some time with Dr. Frankenstein, she talks of their coming nuptials, but she still refuses to allow the young doctor any kind of intimacy. Soon thereafter, the monster kidnaps Elizabeth and carries her off to a cave where, when she regains consciousness, he rapes her. We don't see much of the actual rape. The monster leers. The damsel cringes and threatens. The monster begins unbuttoning his pants. The camera turns to Elizabeth's face. As the pants come down (or so the shadows suggest) she sees the monster's legendary shvann-shtucker, to which her first response is "Woof." She struggles and tells him to stop, but the monster falls on her. A couple of grunts later, Madeleine Kahn belts out the chorus line of a Jeannette MacDonald standard, singing a full-throated "O, sweet mystery of life at last I've found you."

Afterwords, following what Elizabeth describes as "six or seven quickies," the monster runs off, and Elizabeth tells us she's in love. It's supposed to be funny—ironic in that the frigid cocktease just needed to get raped to solve her sexual problems and make her realize that what's really important in life is a big dick and a man willing to wield it liberally.

Now, I realize that explaining a joke kills it, but I don't think I could possibly do enough to deliver the death this particular joke deserves. I'm going to miss Young Frankenstein, but I don't think I'll ever be able to sit through that movie again.

This so-called joke is just one small example of rape culture. Like Rhett Butler's rape of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939), like Howard Roark's rape of Dominique Francon in Fountainhead (1949), like the Mysterious Stranger's rape of Callie Travers in Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter (1973), the monster's rape of Elizabeth in Young Frankenstein (1974) serves to normalize rape (O, and as to that claim of  misandry, it might be useful to remember that Gone with the Wind and Fountainhead were written by women). What's worse, these examples show rape to be a useful tool for correcting and controlling petulant, unruly women. As long as audiences continue to watch and accept movies like this, to laugh at Elizabeth's afterglow, to smile knowingly at Scarlett's cheerful morning-after demeanor, even to smirk at Callie's comeuppance, rape culture will continue to thrive.