Knitting, Symbols, Power

March 8, 2017

Today is International Women’s Day.

A friend of mine has been knitting a lot of pink hats over the last few months. She keeps giving them away, because someone always wants one, and she can make more. Last week, she was waiting at an airport and spotted another knitter. The typical conversation ensued as she asked, “What do you have on your needles?” A sweater for her granddaughter. “And what are you working on?”  My friend raised her needles to show a pink square of yarn.  The other woman’s eyes got wide.  “Is that one of those hats?”  Yes.  And then she smiled, “I’ve knitted some of those myself.”  Instant connection.

This story made me think of two different passages in two of my favorite Victorian novels.

First, from A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens:

“Darkness closed around, and then came the ringing of church bells and the distant beating of the military drums in the Palace Courtyard, as the women sat knitting, knitting. Darkness encompassed them. Another darkness was closing in as surely, when the church bells, then ringing pleasantly in many an airy steeple over France, should be melted into thundering cannon; when the military drums should be beating to drown a wretched voice, that night all potent as the voice of Power and Plenty, Freedom and Life. So much was closing in about the women who sat knitting, knitting, that they their very selves were closing in around a structure yet unbuilt, where they were to sit knitting, knitting, counting dropping heads.”

(Let’s pause for a moment to admire Dickens’ writing, his cadence, the relentless repetitions and embedded ironies, and that killer last line.  Dropping heads.  Boom.)

Okay, I’m back now.  This is of course Dickens’ master melodrama about the French Revolution, and what he is describing is the impending arrival of the Terror, the guillotine, and the story of the impassive women who sat as observes, knitting as hundreds of people were executed.  Quite the scene.

Here’s the other passage, early on in Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad:

“Often far away there I thought of these two, guarding the door of Darkness, knitting black wool as for a warm pall, one introducing, introducing continuously to the unknown, the other scrutinising the cheery and foolish faces with unconcerned old eyes. Ave! Old knitter of black wool. Morituri te salutant. Not many of those she looked at ever saw her again — not half, by a long way.”

(Let’s pause for a moment to reflect that Conrad is writing this in his third language.)

Here, protagonist Marlow is describing the front office of the merchant company he works for. He’s about to be ordered to the Congo to go after Kurtz. The Latin is the old gladiator call:  “We who are about to die salute you!” More knitting, more death.

I’ve often thought that you can take the girl out of grad school, but you can’t really take grad school out of the girl. If I were still in academia, doing close readings and deep literary analysis, here’s what I’d do with these passages:  I’d try to find out if Conrad was specifically riffing on Dickens (I wouldn’t be surprised); where else this iconic image of women knitting as harbingers of doom might appear; I’d research the historicity of the image, if there is a source for women revolutionaries in France using knitting to encode records and send messages (wikipedia says yes!  And associated with a women’s march no less, hmmm…..).  I’d look for other ways knitting might appear symbolically in Victorian literature. Then I’d expand out and look for this image of women knitting at the boundary of Darkness in other periods of literature.

But I’m no longer in academia and however intrigued I am by all these questions, I don’t have a month or so to spend pouring through academic journals. I’m on a novel deadline.

However, I’ve lately become interested in the symbolic potential of knitting. It seems relevant.

In the two passages above, knitting is ominous. The knitting women sit at the threshold between life and death. It seems a strange association to me, because for me knitting is productivity, life, and love. It’s a thing that turns common yarn into sweaters, hats, scarves, gloves, socks, and a million other good things. A hand-knitted item is not just useful, it embodies the love and esteem of the one who knitted it for you.

But I wonder:  if you don’t know how to knit, it’s a mysterious skill. Someone manipulates a couple of sticks in an arcane fashion, and cloth pours out. Objects with patterns, shapes, and complexity, made from the simplest tools. It’s a thing that mostly women do, often in groups, that looks a little bit like magic. Like witchcraft.

I imagine that the sight of tens of thousands of pink hats, and the dawning realization that they were not manufactured in some distant country, not funded by a dark conspiracy, that they were in fact made by tens of thousands of hands united in solidarity, right here in the U.S., was just as terrifying to some conservative commentators as the sinister Madame Defarge, knitting the record of who should die by the guillotine’s blade.

When commentators asked, Who funded all those hats? Where did they come from?  We paused a moment before answering because we almost didn’t understand the question. Yes, yes they were made in America.  We made them. And we realized these commentators who were so suspicious of the hats could not conceive of women communicating on a such a scale to produce tens of thousands of these objects.  Could not comprehend women making such a powerful statement with their own two hands and a little bit of yarn.   (Last year, after that regrettable hacking episode of Supergirl, I joked that no one would ever be hacking Ravelry to expose users’ information. I’m not so sure now…)

One suspects they have never been inside a craft store. Which is a little sad, isn’t it?  I think of going through my life without making things, and I get ill.

Our hats are bright pink instead of the black wool of Conrad’s sentinels.  It seems appropriately post-modern, that a sea of stylized pink ears should evoke similar foreboding in some. I approve.

But of course, they only appear foreboding to outsiders, to people who don’t understand the message. They see a ridiculous knitted object, maybe slightly risqué if they dared say the word out loud.  Those of us who make and wear pink hats see solidarity. These hats identify friends. Some astute commentators have pointed out that the sea of pink hats means photographs from the Women’s March can never be repurposed and made to represent something else. They mean safety, that you can be among strangers and know you’ll be all right, because you see a knitted pink corner peeking out of a pocket.

They’re a symbol of what we can make, and the power we have when we unite. We make hats. We can remake the world.

Kitting, knitting into the light.

 

Monday update

February 20, 2017

Saturday’s event at the Park Hill Branch Library was great! Thanks to all who came by!

So I spent all last week writing a bunch of emails hoping to get responses today but then it turns out today is a holiday and one of the things about working from home is sometimes you just don’t notice when everyone else isn’t working.  At least I don’t need to go to the bank or post office today.

I finished my last book (Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock) without picking my next book, and this has left me floundering a bit. I try to pick the next one before finishing the previous so I can jump right in. When I don’t, I look at all the books on the to-be-read pile and freeze up. So, that’s something I need to do today.  JUST PICK SOMETHING, GAH.

I submitted two lists for the Great Backyard Bird Count. Given how busy I was this weekend, I think that’s pretty good. The highlights were out at Walden Ponds, where I set up the spotting scope and got a bunch of neat ducks, and a hooded merganser showing off for the ladies.  But I was also able to get the scope on a magnificent golden eagle, who perched on an electric line pylon nearby and stayed for a good long time.

The Bannerless sequel is about at the 50% mark. I had to stop and outline the messy middle, but I think I’m back on track, at least for the next little bit.

And that’s a Monday.

 

award nomination season

February 8, 2017

The nominating season for the Hugo and Nebula awards is upon us (the former nominated by attendees of last year’s and this year’s Worldcons, and the latter by the membership of SFWA), and I like to try to talk about what I’m looking at nominating, at least a little.  (A couple months ago I posted my own eligible work, if you’re so inclined to look.)

As usual, I didn’t read much in the way of shorter fiction — I keep meaning to and I keep not making it happen. Grr.  I did encounter Paolo Bacigalupi’s new one, “Mika Model,” super brutal and pointed and very good.  I actually did pretty well on novels.  My favorite new novel last year was probably Kingfisher by Patricia McKillip, a very quiet but very clever. . .actually I can’t say much more about it without spoiling the surprise, which is right there in the title and I didn’t even notice it until I was a third of the way through.

A lot of good entries in series:  Four Roads Cross by Max Gladstone, part of the very cool Craft Sequence. Babylon’s Ashes by James S.A. Corey.  The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater, which wraps up the excellent Raven Cycle, which everyone should try.

This brings me to this year’s Hugo Awards, which added a special category for best series. This has the potential of being quite contentious, which is why I was sure to nominate all of the above, as well as Wild Cards, the longest-running shared-world anthology series in SF&F, which had a new book out last year, High Stakes.  It would be awesome to get some recognition for the 30 years of storytelling the Wild Cards gang has put out.

The other category I paid attention to is Graphic Story, because there’s just so much going on in this field, both in the big publishers and with independents. I’d like to draw attention to Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s Monstress, the ongoing Strong Female Protagonist, and a couple of out-of-left-field entries from DC and Marvel:  Bombshells, which on the surface looks like an excuse to draw all the DC women heroes and villains as 1940’s pinups, but manages to be a totally woman-centric alt-history adventure story, which is very cool; and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. I’m late to the party on that one, but it’s goofy and meta and hard not to love.

And that’s what I’m looking at right now.

 

 

working, working

January 25, 2017

Over the last two months I’ve written two short stories and 20k words of novel.  Seeing as how the six months before that was mostly post-production on Bannerless and Martians Abroad and a couple of side projects, that seems like a huge accomplishment.  Feels good to be writing new words again.

Reminder:  This Sunday 1 pm I’ll be at the Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe. It’s a ticketed event, check the website for more info.

I’ve got another piece up on Tor.com, this one about Five Books That Make Living and Working in Space Seem Ordinary.  Definitely where I get some of my inspiration.

And just a week left in the first month of the year. It already seems like so much has happened.  Gotta keep going.  Onward and upward.

 

quote

October 12, 2016

From recent reading, Peter S. Beagle’s introduction to his short story collection The Line Between:

“…it is the shadow that terrifies, not the monster it hides. The monster is an actor in a monster suit. The shadow is always real.”

 

the great urban fantasy crash

September 14, 2016

So the word around writing and publishing circles over the last couple of years is: urban fantasy isn’t selling anymore. Publishers aren’t buying it. What was hugely popular five years ago is now done. That ship has sailed.

I’ve seen some commentary about this being some big publisher conspiracy to kill the genre — just as I also saw commentary that the popularity of the genre was a publishing conspiracy in the first place.  But I’m here to tell you, as an urban fantasy author and someone who worked in a bookstore twenty years ago, publishers are highly reactive and not very good at manufacturing any kind of popularity. They react to sales numbers, and they’re usually chasing trends rather than creating them. (One of my favorite statements ever about publishing trends: everyone was looking for the next Harry Potter, which turned out to be Twilight, then everyone was looking for the next Twilight, which turned out to be The Hunger Games.  They’re still looking for the next Hunger Games…)

However it happened, the results have been increasingly clear: authors are having a harder time selling urban fantasy, and readers have had a harder time finding a good series to follow.

Here’s what I think contributed to the crash.  Note: this is my perception of the situation, based on my experience as a bookseller and author.  A lot of this is subjective experience, so make of it what you will.

–The bar for success in the genre became really high.  Sales numbers that would be decent in any other genre didn’t meet expectations for urban fantasy, where publishers were looking for the next #1 New York Times bestseller.  If an author didn’t hit the list pretty quick out of the gate, they were dropped.

–Publishers weren’t willing to stick with new authors to let them develop.  This led to “series” with only one or two books in them, and if they didn’t hit big right away, they got dropped.  Readers often wait until a series has several books in them before they start reading, but if the first books don’t sell, there will never be a series.  This happened to dozens of authors.

–At the same time, for a stretch there publishers were buying anything with a hint of vampire/ shapeshifter/romance in them.  They were throwing things against the wall to see what might stick — as above, hoping for the next bestseller.  (Six years ago I was telling people:  it was pretty easy to get a first contract for an urban fantasy novel — and really difficult to get a second contract.)

–As a result, quality became uneven.  Readers started to notice the same kinds of characters, the same kinds of storylines, the same tropes.  The genre got kind of predictable and boring and they moved on.

–Readers started getting frustrated, both because quality was uneven, and because they’d discover a favorite new author who would vanish within a year or two when their series never had a chance to get off the ground. (Hint:  they might still be writing under another name, or they might be e-publishing.)  So once again, many readers moved on.

–Sales of mass market paperbacks in general have tanked over the last couple of years.  Since most urban fantasy has been in mass market, it’s fallen victim to this trend. (Lots of discussion about why the trend is happening.  Are people buying e-books instead?  Are nice trade paperbacks simply more economical, since mass markets are almost up to $10 now?  I don’t know.)

So, basically, the market became oversaturated with urban fantasy, and various market forces caused a noticeable drop in the sales of urban fantasy, and publishers stopped publishing so much urban fantasy, and so on.

I also think a bunch of authors just got worn out with writing the same series for 10+ years, some of us on 2 book a year schedules.  I’m fascinated that a bunch of UF authors wrapped up their series in the space of a couple of years — Kim Harrison, Kelley Armstrong, Charlaine Harris, and so on.  This is all part of what let me know that I was making the right decision to wrap up Kitty.  Plus, I was at the end of the contract, the storyline was close to the end, and so on.  It really was time.

The thing is, and the thing that I’m constantly telling people, especially new authors who are trying to sell urban fantasy novels:  urban fantasy isn’t dead.  It’s still out there.  New UF and UF-adjacent novels are being published all the time, just maybe not in the numbers they were before.  Vampire and supernatural fiction has always been around, from the gothics of two hundred years ago on up. It changes, but it never entirely goes away.

Are you an author shopping an urban fantasy novel?  Try calling it supernatural mystery or thriller.  Or dark fantasy. Or contemporary fantasy.  Or find your own term.  The thing is, “urban fantasy” of the last 10 years was only ever a marketing term.  It was co-opted to describe a kind of fiction that was already happening, and it was only later that people and publishers started looking for fiction to fill that niche, after the niche was already well established.  Marketing terms and categories change all the time, in the endless quest to sell books.  Don’t let that change how you write or read.

 

Friday!

May 20, 2016

I’m in that state where I have a bunch of things I ought to be reading, so of course instead I sat down and re-read Austen’s Persuasion.  It’s my favorite of hers.  I just finished that and am now trying out Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road, which appears to be an unabashed pastiche of late Victorian adventure novels, which is totally in my wheelhouse.  Although he dedicates the book to Michael Moorcock, which also tells you where it’s coming from.  There’s also a dash of Fritz Leiber in there.  I’m intrigued at how Chabon built up a reputation as a wholly literary writer, but then has used that platform to unabashedly mess around with various genres and genre conventions.  In the process he’s won a Pulitzer and a Hugo.  Nice work if you can get it.

I’m absolutely fascinated by the current popular phenomenon of mystery boxes like Loot Crate.  Everyone is talking about them.  Everyone posts pictures of their goodies on FB or whatever.  At Wondercon, there were at least three or four companies, including Loot Crate, selling boxes out of their booths.  I totally get the attraction.  It’s like Christmas and the lottery wrapped up in one.  Getting things in the mail is already awesome, but getting a big surprise in the mail is even more awesome.

But I’ll tell you my problem:  Right now I’m trying to get rid of things, not get more things, and most of these boxes seem to be all about things.  Tchotchkies.  Cool nerd stuff, but still stuff, that then ends up in boxes or as clutter.  I’ve spent two years sorting out things and carting them off to the thrift store, I don’t need more.  Prediction:  in about 10-15 years every thrift store in the country is going to have walls full of Funko Pop figures that no one has room for anymore and that no one wants to keep.

Well, at the Creative Ink Festival I was introduced to the Novel Tea Club.  This is a mystery box club where you get a book (you can pick the genre), and then some things like tea, tea infusers, candles, bath stuff, etc.  All designed for a nice relaxing read-in.  And — all entirely consumable.  No clutter, nothing to find space for.  It’s all stuff you use.  And then get more of.  Fantastic idea.

And today, the sun is shining, I’m out in short sleeves, and it’s magnificent.  That gray weather we had all last week really got me down.  But I’m better now.