On the history of (so-called) Free Speech

So, while we all struggle in our educated, liberal brains to wrap our heads around whether publishers should or should not publish the deluded writings of human-tighty-whitey-truck-skid and minor-professor-turned-incel-army-building-conman Jordan Peterson (spoiler, they’re not obligated to, but will because Cha-CHING!), The Guardian looks at the history of Free Speech as a thing we all use to justify saying whatever-the-fuck-we-want from whatever-the-fuck-perspective.

One reason is that “free speech” isn’t really a norm, but a slogan: a label each of us applies to language and conventions we approve of. People complaining about threats to free speech sometimes don’t like the way new norms and voices are challenging their own. Why shouldn’t Boris Johnson be allowed to talk of “piccaninnies”? How can anyone expect me to refer to a person as “they”? It’s a free country, isn’t it?

None of this is new: what free speech means has been controversial for about 400 years. Our modern concept of it began as a radical Protestant argument – that it was pointless to punish Christians for arguing about dogma and worship, because these were questions to which ultimately only God knew the answers. It was this freedom of speaking and printing that John Milton famously extolled in his Areopagitica (1644): the liberty of speculating about God’s hidden truths. It was never meant to extend to debates about public affairs, politics or morality.

Thursday news dumpster

FANTASTIC NEWS: Nalo Hopkinson made SFWA Grandmaster

Bookninja favourite Nalo Hopkinson is being been made a Grandmaster of the Science Fiction Fantasy Writers Association. This is a lifetime achievement Oscar but for us nerds. Big stuff and proper recognition for a brilliant writer. I sat on a jury with Hopkinson many years ago and hopefully hid from her how nervous I was to be in her presence, having read and loved her books. She turned out to be super nice and friendly and normal. Lovely. There are few authors I feel nervous around, but she, and another fantasy fellow who I know reads this blog daily because he PMs me on Twitter when he disagrees with me (I won’t name him but his initials are Guy Gavriel Kay), make me a bit weak in the knees with teenaged hero worship.

Online poetry courses by… me

So, over the years I’ve taught, and lectured on, poetry at a handful universities Canada and the US, including UofT and the MFA program at UBC, and so this year, at a time of deep strain on the job market out here, I’ve decided to strike out on my own and offer some courses for new and emerging poets. I firmly believe that everyone has “poetic thoughts”, or moments of connection that resemble poetic thoughts, and that the main difference between someone like myself and the average plumber/doctor/clerk/site supervisor/etc/etc. is that I have spent the last 25 years of my life learning to recognize those thoughts when they happen and training myself to write them down in interesting ways. The thoughts happen to everyone, but the skills needed to craft them into poems are like the skills needed to build a bookshelf: you can learn them. So I’m going to start by offering a couple courses in skills-building for poets. They’ll be a combination 8 weeks of asynchronous online learning and optional synchronous meet-ups and workshopping. One starts in January, one in March. Great gifts for the person in your life who needs a bit of structure and a group for motivation. Everyone from beginners to emerging poets are ideal for the first course in January. Listen, you’re going to be stuck at home anyway, why not learn some new tricks and skills while you’re there?


The choice is in: Pandemic is WotY

“Pandemic” has been chosen by both Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com as their Word of the Year. It seems to cover all bases, really. “Bubble” is still our house’s Word of the Year. That and “Unemployment”. But I digress. “Comfort in the knowing…” Lol. The curse of the educated.

Similarly, at Merriam-Webster.com, searches for pandemic on March 11 were 115,806 per cent higher than spikes experienced on the same date last year, Sokolowski said.

Pandemic, with roots in Latin and Greek, is a combination of “pan,” for all, and “demos,” for people or population, he said. The latter is the same root of “democracy,” Sokolowski said. The word pandemic dates to the mid-1600s, used broadly for “universal” and more specifically to disease in a medical text in the 1660s, he said.

That was after the plagues of the Middle Ages, Sokolowski said.

He attributes the lookup traffic for pandemic not entirely to searchers who didn’t know what it meant but also to those on the hunt for more detail, or for inspiration or comfort in the knowing.

Tuesday newsday


Signed books or a story?

I’ve always found that moment particularly difficult. Someone is asking for a signature and you’re supposed to make up something personal and witty on the spot. For years I tried to write something nice and worthy of the 20 bucks someone spent on the book, but they mostly just ended up boiling down to “thanks”, so that’s what I sign now for everyone but my besties. I remember watching a very famous poet do this over and over. Just “Thanks,” and his name. Even for people he knew well. It was so freeing. Once I could worry less about the inscription, I had more time to worry about the fact that I should really know this person’s name, but I don’t so I’m going to ask for them to spell their name out slowly to make sure I don’t misprint any letters. Works better with Catherine/Kathryns than with Bobs. But it’s a strategy I developed over 45 years of living with undiagnosed ADHD.

All that said, this guy has really broke the mold and turned the personalized signature into a piece of art itself. He signed 1000 editions of his book with one word written in pen on the title page of each. Put those words together and you get an extra story. Someone is now trying to track down all 1000 words to see how well it worked.

Last month, writer Will Maclean’s debut novel The Apparition Phase was released into the world. To mark its publication, independent London bookstore Goldsboro Books released 1000 signed and exclusive first editions to members of their monthly book club. But rather than just putting his signature on each one, Maclean had another idea.

“On the title page, you’ll see a single word handwritten by me,” reads a note from Maclean distributed with each first edition. “That word, although meaningless on its own, is part of a piece of writing precisely 1000 words long.

“Each of these 1000 Goldsboro exclusive editions has one single word of that original piece written in them, dispersed among the people who own them. That piece of text is recorded nowhere else but, collectively, in those 1000 editions.”

On the changing faces of fantasy literature

Two essays tackle the genre that’s been dominated by white men for too long. At Aeon, they look at the change that’s coming to the Oxford School of high fantasy (basically, Tolkien and Lewis), and at the Independent, they look at the diversity problem, how it’s being handled, and how it’s changing things. Some of the best SFF I’ve read in years comes from authors of Colour, like NK Jesimin, Marlon James, and Cixin Liu. Given how much of this genre I consumed as as teen and how much I’m watching my own nerdy teens continue that tradition, it’s great to have these options.

Yes, there were always women in fantasy. But, with the exception of perhaps the great Ursula K Le Guin, they were forced into the margins. Marion Zimmer Bradley, Mercedes Lackey, Robin Hobb, Anne McCaffrey, Margaret Weis, etc, were never part of the canon of authors you “had” to read (there is also JK Rowling – but she is better thought of as a children’s writer). Nor were minority novelists, who stood about as much chance of landing a fat publishing deal for a doorstopper trilogy as a pacifist dwarf had of surviving the Mines of Moria.

That finally has started to change. The most acclaimed science fiction/fantasy author writing today is probably African-American NK Jemisin, whose Broken Earth trilogy uses dystopian tropes to explore racial, gender and environmental issues. A recent Time Magazine countdown of the 100 Best Fantasy Novels of All Time, meanwhile, gave prime billing to new authors including Kuang, who had two books on the list – more than George RR Martin or Robert Jordan.