Recently I came to grips with the idea that I no longer read or enjoy fiction the same way as most other readers. By that I mean: what I call ‘good writing’ versus ‘bad’ is no longer mainstream. This is subjective, but I have to wonder how many others from my era (I’m a Gen-Xer) agree.
Here are the 4 things I look for (and how often they fail).
1. Are there any interesting characters (with both internal and external conflict to navigate) for me to sympathize with?
~~> About 1 in 5 stories, from any era, fail this. And I’m sure I’m not alone in using this metric. So far, so good. I’m still a norm-ie.
2. Does the author prioritize laying out a satisfying story (for example, is there a meaningful resolution and does it not use, say, nihilism or linguistic vagueness as a SAM [storytelling avoidance mechanism]?
~~> Again: about 1 in 5 stories, from any era, fail this for me.
3. Is any of this, in any way, original?
~~> Another 1 in 10 drop the ball here. You would think that this would either get harder over time (‘nothing new under the sun’) or easier over time (as the authorship has gotten more diverse); but, no, this turns out to be pretty constant tor me—regardless of era.
4. Is the author’s prose not, well, prosaic (ie, does the author commit to a/any kind of stylistic choices in support of the story)? Is a different POV used where it would’ve been a better choice? Does the author’s personal style infuse the prose? Is it not merely a polemic dressed up as fiction?
~~> This is where the modern era—by which I mean since, say, 2000—really stinks up the joint.
Before then, this was only a similar consideration to the others, maybe 1 in 4, which still left about 25% of stories that I’ll find captivating. Like, for Sci-Fi, I can walk into any used bookstore and pick up a couple old “Ace Double” two-in-one books and I’ll be set. They’ll all be interesting and I can be sure at least one tale will be amazing.
But, now the pedestrian writing (force-fed by industry editors, and copied by the ubiquitous self-publishers) kills virtually all the rest. Bottom-line: If it’s been published in the last twenty of so years, my chances of liking it are closer to 1-in-100 than 1-in-4. Yikes!
This might be too bad. But, if that was all only about me, it would be a ‘sucks to be you’ thing, right?
But the real tragedy for me is how this homogenization has affected the general reader. From my time in book clubs, online on Social Media, and in critique groups of all kinds, it seems that the general reader has been conditioned to accept the same old, same old (which, ironically, is actually quite new).
Conformity is demanded and creativity seems to be punished—a recent book promo that I was a part of listed “First Person” as a sub-genre. A sub-genre!!!
But, mostly, it’s not a conscious thing. It’s similar to what’s happened to the music industry. Listen to the top 100 pop songs on Spotify and you’ll hear essentially the same thing. No bridge, No pre-chorus—it’s been documented that key changes have essentially disappeared in modern music. In the decade of the 2010s, for example, only one “number one” hit, Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode”, (2018) had a key change.
I believe this is why the modern reader so often says they’re being “kicked out” of a story. I think this is a fairly new phenomenon. As I grew up, no one used that phrase. A story “grabbed us” (or not). Or we would “give up” on a story. But, “kicked out”? That’s a strange phrase. It’s violent and visceral, like a rubber band snapping or a door being slammed in our face. It turns reading from a conscious process into some kind of lizard-brain response. Like, what, exactly, are you so afraid of?
“…I have always been so skeptical of the whole contemporary critical scene, in which the text is regarded as some immutable miracle, to be worshipped or dissected as if it were the story itself. What anyone trained as an editor and rewriter knows is that the text is not the story—the text is merely one attempt to place the story inside the memory of the audience. The text can be replaced by an infinite number of other attempts. Some will be better than others, but no text will be “right” for all audiences, nor will any one text be “perfect.” The story exists only in the memory of the reader, as an altered version of the story intended (consciously or not) by the author. It is possible for the audience to create for themselves a better story than the author could ever have created in the text. Thus audiences have taken to their hearts miserably-written stories like Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs, because what they received transcended the text; while any number of beautifully written texts have been swallowed up without a trace, because the text, however lovely, did a miserable job of kindling a living story within the readers’ memories.”
About twenty-five years ago, one of my tonsils died.
It became a lump of dead tissue, joined with the other, still living, tonsil only by their shared infection in and around my throat. In the middle of a Friday night, I looked in the mirror and they were touching. My airway was completely closed off.
My wife drove me to the emergency room, where I sat for the next six hours or so, until their ENT specialist could be reached (and, I speculate, sobered out, but I digress). When he arrived, that Saturday morning (looking a little bedraggled), he settled in and looked at my tonsils. He then told me it was an abscess and brought out a tool by which he intended to drain the puss out of the infected tonsils. For all the world, it looked like Toilet-Aid Tongs for Self-Wiping.
This was to be the first of those three surgeries that the doctor’s note mentioned. He was sitting on a little stool with wheels, while I was seated in one of those wide-metal based dentist’s chairs with the attached armature and lamp overhead. After warning me that it ‘might hurt a bit’, he then proceeded to reach into my throat with the tongs.
In a pre-Substack blog post last year , I set out the two big projects that The Fell Beast (the working moniker for my writing practice) would encapsulate: a suite of short stories and a sequel to my novel.
Then, over the holidays, my mom died—and my mind set about reshuffling the deck, until I was ready (once again) able to deal the cards.
Suddenly, my writing brain was broken, except for poetry. Short stories sputtered and faded from consciousness. And the sequel was stalled, altogether. My writing practice became semi-random ministrations. In fact, as I look back, those efforts were more akin to menstruations—failing to give birth to something, I was left to periodically expel what I could.
But, times change. Progress pretends to happen. Or we happen upon some. Either way, recently, I’ve come to realize that the two projects I had planned were really just one project, a project that I was over-complicating. And so the sequel will be a mosaic novel.
Meanwhile, my poetry is still a thing (notice the elegant word choice—yeah, that’s right, I got game). As I mentioned in my Substack, a couple pieces have already been excepted by a journal for 2024.
And I’ve even been able to generate a couple of nifty, new short story ideas that are tentatively standing on their own like newborn foal.
THREE STRIKES AND THIS SCIENCE FANTASY IS “OUT” A Review of “God’s Toes” by the Akhundunese author JC Esnesonn
Trigger Warning: This Review contains excerpts of correspondence between this reviewer and the author, wherein one side engages in hateful, violent rhetoric (I’ll leave it to you to figure out who). First, though, I will share the original review (edited). And then I’ll append excerpts from our subsequent online exchange.
THE ORIGINAL REVIEW
First, fellow reader, a disclosure: I had never encountered any Akhundunese writing prior to opening this book. This was a conscious choice because Equatorial Akhundu was once an English colony that still (shamefully) used western English as its main language. I mean, I don’t speak Akhundunese, but I don’t want to read Akhundunese from ‘Western’ translators, either. Thankfully, Esnesonn is one of the newest generation of Akhundunese authors who, my understanding is, first writes their books all in Akhundunese before then translating them into subsequent English editions.
Nor had I ever encountered anything else by the mysterious JC Esnesonn; but, when an old friend from my MFA days turned me onto their work (“They’re LGBTIA+! And Akhundunese!”), I went ahead and downloaded their debut novel “God’s Toes”.
Then I did my research. Pro Tip: I like to use an old trick my favorite writing professor taught me, which is to click the >> button and skip all the way to the back cover, in order to read the blurb and any review excerpts that might be there. I often find that that—along with Amazon’s genre description and comments—gives me more than enough information about a book for me to get a read on it.
So I did all that. I have to say, the back cover just mentions the “super-imaginative” fantasy world and the protagonist going through a journey of self-discovery. A couple of blurbs compare it to Tolkein and LeGuin, both of whom I’d heard of, but had never read. All in all, it sounded like pretty standard stuff. But imagine my excitement after reading the following summary in one reader’s comment: “Picture Gandalf as a transwoman podiatrist, transported to a cis-topian High Fantasy world, where she has to deal with hobbits as bi-curious clients on a secret quest for shoe ware equity in a world with plenty of dragons, but no fashion industry?”
I mean, what an elevator pitch, amirite? Why didn’t they put that on the back cover, for crying out loud? As a “+” person who is more than a little bit sorcerous myself, I am always looking for representation in genre fiction. It was all enough to make me kick off my own pumps and settle in for a good yarn; but, first, of course, I had to check out Esnesonn’s social media presence.
And that’s when the first cracks in the book began to show.
First of all, there was only a Twitter account for the author. No Instagram. No TikTok. It was like Esnesonn was from the frikkin’ Dark Ages. That should’ve been a red flag, I suppose.
I spent the better part of a full morning (I estimate 3 hours) scrolling through nearly a decade of tweets from Esnesson (God, I can’t wait until they give me an AI that’ll do this part for me). Anyway, here’s the thing: I wasn’t able to find one single tweet about any lgbtia+ issues (!).
Yes, they list themselves as an “lgbt ally” in their profile; but, in over nine-thousand tweets, you’d think JC would put that front and center, you know? All of Esnesonn’s comments were made in support of mundane things, reaching out to family during their milestones, or praising the latest movie they’d watched. Concern about Global Warming/Climate Change. Like that.
At one point, I fell back on Google, to see what was up. I only found a few websites linking Esnesonn to a court case (apparently, they used to be an attorney) where they had written and filed a petition for Marriage Equality on behalf of gay couples in their particular state. But that was many years ago, right before the Supreme Court made it the law of the land. So, I didn’t see where that was relevant, now.
Discouraged but not dissuaded—that afternoon, instead of giving up, I doubled down. I decided to not just search Tweets and Retweets, but to also do a deep dive into their “Likes” on Twitter, too.
This took even longer, but my detective work paid off. Back in 2011, Esnesonn “Liked” a tweet from none other than the Patron Demon-Queen of TERFs, JK Rowling. Of course, the tweet-in-question wasn’t about any lgbt issues, either (Why would JC care about those?)—no, this was just Rowling saying something snarky about the superhero movie “Green Lantern”. JK said she probably wouldn’t see it. JC thought that was funny (JK and JC. Nice, hunh?).
So, I took a second look at “God’s Toes”. It was at that point I noticed that the cover calls it “Science Fantasy”. I mean—is that even a thing? I’ve been reviewing SF/F works for nearly five years and I’d never even seen that as a category on Amazon! And the bearded figure on the cover, at second glance, isn’t wearing any obvious make-up or feminine baubles. No earrings. Just a pointy hat and high heels. The face wasn’t androgynous…in fact, it’s clearly being portrayed as male (was that an adam’s apple?).
So…what? A white, male protagonist? I mean, another one of those is just what the industry needs, right?
Then I went to Esnesonn’s Wikipedia page. It turns out that, while both of their parents were from Equatorial Akhundu, JC and family moved to American when JC was a small child. Hm. Some of the comments on their book’s amazon page point out that the magic system in the novel apparently is directly based on the religion of neighboring Equatorial Khundu, and not Esnesonn’s native Equatorial Akhundu! Well, my goodness. I can just hear all of those Khundunese yelling ‘My religion is not your magic system!” Finally, get this: “J.C.” actually stands for “Jose Chung”. Now, this was just the ultimate cringe. Talk about cultural appropriation!
At this point, I felt like I was spending too much time on this review, already. I mean, enough was enough. No, I wasn’t about to be sucked into this. And you shouldn’t either, dear reader.
Vote on this ‘urban footwear fantasy’ with your feet and give this one a pass. I can give it only ONE STAR.
THE FIRST LETTER [STRIKE TWO]
After exhaustingly writing the above review, I considered the whole matter over with. Little did I realize that this would only be ‘strike one’.
After publishing this review in a eighteen-part Tweet on Twitter, none other than the author themselves decided to reach out to me. It was an email, which contained a link to their website, for the following post. I won’t recount all of it here, but I’ll excerpt the most hateful, explicitly violent part (which is the beginning):
“Dear Mr. Harbinger,
While I am grateful for anyone who takes the time to review my work, I must, respectfully, take issue with your portrayal both of me and of my debut novel.
First of all, my pseudonym is indeed “Jose Chung Esnesonn” as my parents were both X-Files fans, and Esnesonn is an anagram of nonsense—all of which is apropos of my twisted sense of humor. But, as my wikipedia page (and my own website) make clear, that isn’t my real name. And, as the actual pseudonym on the book covers is “JC”, I believe accusations of ‘cultural appropriation’ around that are silly.
Second, and more serious, is the idea that my magic system is also an appropriation of some kind. My novel’s magic system is not actually based on any one religion at all, as the text of the book makes clear. In fact, the fantasy world on the other side of the portal in my book, introduces the reader to creatures that speak and weave their magic to each character in that character’s own native religion. So, for example, those creatures use what appear to be Catholic-based spells for Catholics, etc.
But, even if that weren’t the case, why is any of this (the author’s nationality or their religion, neither of which is mentioned anywhere in my novel or my marketing) relevant? Must everyone write fantasy characters only from their own country? Can the magic (whether metaphorical or realistically portrayed in a fantasy) of any particular religion only be recounted by practitioners (maybe it is better to say “alleged practitioners”, since we all fall short) of that particular religion?
I do write from both experience and empathy. And my experiences with many different types of people do inform my work. But, ultimately, these are fictional characters and probably are best understood on those terms—that is, within the milieu of the world which I created for them, would’t you agree? I think you’d be hard pressed to find anything that furthers any sort of negative stereotypes against anyone in my work. But, if you can find something, I hope you will let me know so that I can be made aware and correct that in future works.
I must say, it does seem a lot of your concerns would have been addressed if you had actually read the book…”
And then their note goes on to invite me to reply to them on their website in a ‘fruitful and open discussion’.
Can you believe the level of hate?
Let’s start with the greeting: “Mr. Harbinger”. “Mr.”?! Let’s be clear: I have posted no preferred pronouns in my social media profiles—so starting off with this assumption of my gender, this “dead-salutationing”, was obviously inflammatory. Also, the posting of this on their website instead of on a safe space (like, for example, as a reply on my Twitter account—duh!) is a tell…obviously, they planned to engage in more violence and needed their own own forum to do so with impunity.
But then to question the relevance of their own lived experience in their writing? I’m sorry, but I had just never encountered that level of ignorance before. How could JC even call themselves an author with that attitude?
Anyway, I tweeted my displeasure at all of this; and, apparently, one of my Twitter followers did some more research and found out specifically where this hateful person lived. At that point, it was shared on various places on several different platforms.
So, the moral of the story is: See? There are consequences for actions!
THE SECOND LETTER [STRIKE THREE]
Then came this (I guess, final) missive from the erstwhile lgbtia+ “ally”…this was again, posted in another entry on their—no, wait, I’ll just say it—“his” (I’m still not sure, but it has to be a man, I’m thinking) website:
“Dear Sir or Madam or To Whom It May Concern,
After your account let others dox me and my family, I will obviously end all future communications with you.
But, before I do sign off: I am letting it be known, for my readers (and anyone else interested) that I call myself an ally because I have taken part in both personal and professional efforts to support the gay community [you already made reference to my legal work, which was the only accurate thing in your review] along with many other social justice causes. These include feminist, as well as labor issues and general economic inequality across the board.
It is my most fervent hope that you will sign off from your baseless tirades against authors (whose works you have apparently never bothered to consider on the merits of the their actual content) and, instead, try to do some good in the real world.
And, with that dear readers, this sorry chapter in the annals of literary criticism is done. I can only say Thank Goodness that we have platforms like Twitter to root out and expose such hateful people.
Tune in next week for my next review!
Oh, and, if you liked this “review”, don’t forget to hit my subscribe button…
This Church has apparently been named “Church of Christ Meets Here.” (See, for example, both signs)
Now, you might think that’s a silly name, but I am here to tell you: it could be worse. For example—for a while, there—a splinter group actually broke off from this Church. And they opened up right next door!
But, that new congregation never really amounted to much. Because they named themselves:
“Second Church of Christ, We Meet Over There, Too”
Me, to my wife, after several excellent life-suggestions she’d just given me:
Me, with sincerity, as I exit to go to the washroom: “Wow, ever since [you started using] the CPAP, you’re really on it! I’m just gonna step back and let you make all the decisions…” W: “Can I get that in writing?” Me: <long pause> “no.” <quickly closes door behind me> W: “Damn.” Me: <from behind door> “so close…”
The Coffeebeat Cafe™ (which is not really trademarked), as a make-believe place wherein I hold onto my creative experience, is expanding —
Wait, hang on—here’s my logo, for effect:
Anyway, we’re expanding our imaginary cafe to include a Substack, which is, from now on, how I’ll be handing my newsletter. And the newsletter will be focused on my future projects as well as—get this—be published on a weekly basis, with new content (ie, poems, never before seen short works, …like that) each time.
I know, I know. How can you possibly handle all this change?First global warming, now this?
Well, don’t worry. It’s all already been taken care of. You just sit back and enjoy the stuff and business. That’s how we roll.
She sleeps in folds of thin sheets and thicker meds— After twenty-four, then twelve more hours of no food or water. Like two friends jogging, her body stops to wait for her flagging spirit, redeeming no breath.
From the sidelines at home, I wait for the call. Halfway ‘tween fear and relief, I don’t go to bed. I stay up: listening to whistling snow, sounding like songs sung to us kids; watching shows we might have watched, had she wanted more.
In the empty chill of a person’s final winter, too cold and tired is regret, ‘cause suddenly it’s midnight. And the day has arrived anyway. And all I have done is miss the dream of a happier death.