December 13th, 2005


Coffin Henry speaks

So I was stretched out on the couch yesterday afternoon with the Child as she was watching Pippi Longstocking in the South Seas. (Again.) So I fell asleep. Around 4:30 pm. So she eventually woke me up and propelled me into my own bedroom. So I fell back asleep. So I slept fitfully but consistently until around 4:30 am.

Twelve hours. That bug that's haunting my throat and making me cough like an old GM diesel engine better be beat down some.

15 Things About Me and Books

Snurched from oracne and others...

1. The first book I can remember reading is The Cat in the Hat Dictionary, in French. To this day the way I can remember the difference between an alligator and a crocodile is the definition from that book, "Alligator: Un crocodile d'Amerique."

2. The first novel I can remember reading was some paranormal romance subtitled "A Ghostly Love Story" (though oddly I cannot recall the title) which I read when I was about nine years old. I don't recall it being very good.

3. As of about 1980 I had read all of Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys and The Executioner.

4. My mom gave me the red-boxed paperbacks of Lord of the Rings (including The Hobbit) for Christmas, 1975. Read them repeatedly until they fell apart. Still have them.

5. Shortly after reading the Tolkein for the first time, I read Dahlgren. Didn't understand it fifth grade, don't think I understand it now.

6. The only books I've read as many times as the Tolkein are Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun.

7. Yes, I do own a copy of Michael Andre-Driussi's excellent and admirable Lexicon Urthus. First edition, not the revision.

8. Not only that, I own a copy of the limited printing of Gene Wolfe's Empires of Foliage and Flowers. It was the second most expensive book I've ever purchased.

9. I own a copy of the Compact Oxford English Dictionary. I have not yet lost the magnifying glass, though I don't actually need it to read the thing.

10. My favorite book of recent years is probably the first hard cover edition of City of Saints and Madmen, for a whole variety of reasons that transcend the merely textual.

11. Some time ago I noticed I had more "A" authors on my shelves than any other letter, with "B" running a close second. I speculated that this might be a function of my magpie-like progress through the shelves at bookstores, but then I gave away my extensive Piers Anthony collection and things more or less righted themselves. "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things."

12. I still think Foucault's Pendulum is more interesting than Name of the Rose.

13. I grew up in the Third World in the 1960s and 1970s, before VCRs and satellite tv, so unusually for an American of my generation (b. 1964) my childhood exposure to books is several thousand percent greater than my exposure to television. This may explain a number of things.

14. It is very difficult for me to put down a book once I've begun to read it, but as I get older I find myself able to do this from time to time. Some things are not worth the ever increasing percentage of my remaining mortality.

15. I only buy to read. The sole collectible I own is Empires of Foliage and Flowers. If you ever saw my apartment, you'd understand why this is.

Another difficult question, this one of standing

Another difficult, politically incorrect question is bothering me today. In my recent post about mental illness and the potential responsibilities thereof, I expressed significant discomfort in raising the question, and many commentors echoed that discomfort in their responses. An unspoken but broadly shared assumption seemed to be "if you haven't experienced this for yourself, you're not qualified to comment."

I saw this assumption in play again today when xterminal made a comment which echoes this trend on nihilistic_kid's lj. The comment is in reference to something said to xterminal, not by xterminal, to the effect that they weren't qualified to review a book because they were "not (a) teenaged, (b) female, and (c) lesbian."

Also saw it today in this political blog commenting on Tookie Williams and capital punishment in general, where the author felt the need to disclaim their opening lines of:

"I don't carry water for Tookie Williams. I'm not as familiar with his story as some, but I oppose the death penalty firmly and unequivocally."

by saying immediately following:

"If you feel a need to criticize me for being insensitive to the survivors of murder victims, please read this first."

So who has standing to comment on issue of cultural, personal, racial or gender sensitivity? It seems to be the case in our society that if you aren't part of the demographic or (sub)culture, your opinions are automatically suspect.

It's easy to ridicule this trend in genre fiction. I can read, review or have opinions on City of Saints and Madmen without having had experience of being either a saint or a madman. But where real people's real lives and life experiences are at stake -- murder victims' families, rape survivors, oppressed minorities -- am I, a middle class, middle aged white man of WASP background, entitled to an opinion? If not, why not?

This is one of those issues I can see from either side. The very real emotional investment people have in their life experiences, especially in experiences of victimization, cannot be authentically matched by my perspective. I am the transparent case of the majority against which women, people of color, the economically disadvantaged, etc., compare themselves. But at the same time, if I am capable of transcending the constraints of the viewpoint of my race, class and generation (and I believe that I am), is my contribution less valuable?

I don't think anyone can be a successful writer of fiction without being able to look beyond their own experience, through the eyes of someone else in another set of circumstances. It's an issue of characterization, after all, from the writer's perspective. But in wider society, I am disturbed by the trend which says I don't have the right to hold opinions about circumstances I have not personally experienced.

Is it critical to have standing in a situation before one can have an opinion? Does one's opinion gain value from having that standing?