McKean’s Inversion

For no particular reason, I thought of an observation that lexicographer (and old college pal) Erin McKean had about the word “classy,” the gist of which was that if someone used the word to describe themselves, it was often quite obvious that they were in fact the opposite. Someone else calls you “classy”? Maybe you are. Call someone else “classy”? Maybe they are, too. Call yourself “classy”? It’s what you’re trying to sell yourself as, not necessarily what you are.

It occurs to me that this idea has application outside of the word “classy,” since I’ve often found that the adjectives people use to describe themselves exist on a spectrum with “aspirational” on one end and “delusional” on the other, with otherwise very little correlation to who they actually are:

“I am a humble man.”

“I’m punctual.”

“I’m a funny guy.”

And so on.

As there already exists a “McKean’s Law” with respect to words (“Any correction of the speech or writing of others will contain at least one grammatical, spelling, or typographical error”), allow me instead to suggest what I will henceforth label “McKean’s Inversion,” to wit:

The adjective a person says they are is frequently the thing they are not.

To put it in writing terms, it’s a fine example of “show, don’t tell.” Classy people don’t need to assert they’re classy, they do classy things. Funny people don’t have to assure you they’re funny, they simply make you laugh. Kind people don’t need to verbally advertise their kindness, because it’s evident in their lives. All of which is to say the way to be seen as funny, or kind, or humble, or classy, is to be that thing. And if you are, chances are pretty good other people will note it.

In any event, keep McKean’s Inversion in mind the next time you have the urge to tell rather than show what you see as your own best qualities. People may not have a term in their head for McKean’s Inversion, but, believe me, they know it exists.


NPR’s Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels/Series

NPR has released its list of the top 100 science fiction and fantasy novels/series, as voted on by the public from a jury-curated list of 237 finalists, itself culled from public nominations of even more novels. Old Man’s War is on the list, which is pretty nifty. Thank you to those of you who voted for it.

By and large it’s a pretty good list of books, with some very conspicuous omissions that tell us more about the voters of the poll than the books under consideration. A list of the top 100 science fiction/fantasy novels without entries by Brin, Brunner, Butler, Cherryh, Delany or Silverberg (to name some obvious names; there are of course others) is going to have fans of various stripes shaking their heads. These sorts of lists exist as much to make people talk as much as to attempt to quantify the field. This list will certainly do that.

As a conversation starter, and to encourage others to do the same, allow me to list 10 books/series from the finalists list not on the NPR Top 100 list I’d have found room for on my personal Top 100 list. In no particular order:

The Acts of Caine series, Matthew Woodring Stover
Bridge of Birds, Barry Hughart
Grass, Sherri Tepper
Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany
Lord Valentine’s Castle, Robert Silverberg
Earth, David Brin
The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi
Little Fuzzy, H. Beam Piper
The Vlad Taltos series, Steven Brust
Kindred, Octavia Butler

Your list from the finalists not in the final list? Put them in the comments.

Big Idea

The Big Idea: John Hornor Jacobs

The past stays with us in surprising ways. Ask John Hornor Jacobs about this: When it came time for him to write Southern Gods, which takes place in the post-WWII South, Jacobs reached into his own experience of the past to inform the writing. What has he brought from the days gone by to detail his writing today? Jacobs will reminisce for you now.


They say Arkansas is twenty years behind the rest of the America. This isn’t true today, but when I was growing up in the seventies, it was.

My dad was a hunter, a fisherman. When I was a child, he carried me all over the state in pursuit of large mouth bass, crappie, perch, bream, sunfish, catfish, trout, deer, duck, doves, and turkey. We didn’t hunt rabbit. “A man will starve on a diet of rabbit,” my father said.  He drove an Impala with a trailer hitch. Bench seats, no seatbelt in sight.

On the back-roads, where pecans or oaks and scaling bone-white birch trees overhung the tarred highway, it felt like we had traveled back in time, motes of cottonwood fluff hanging in the air. We poured peanuts into RC Cola. We ate Moonpies and drank Nu-Grape. We salted our watermelon and Dad made orange-blossoms with cooler ice and drank beer from cans as he drove. He smoked Pall-Malls, filterless, but was kind enough to open the car window when I complained of the smoke. We stopped at stores that had two-holer outhouses instead of toilets. We visited family who still conversed on a party line. We slept in deer-camps heated with cast-iron stoves burning two-by-fours that may or may not have been pilfered from construction sites.

We would scan the radio as we drove, looking for the strongest signal, making the frequency indicator travel up and down the face of the radio, shaping the white noise, and occasionally find a ghost station playing Hank Williams or gospel choirs or deranged preachers belting out fervor at 100 kilowatts into the night.  In some ways, I was able to experience a part of America that most people believed gone years before.

When I finally got around to writing my first novel, I knew I wanted to write about the 1950s in the South because I felt I knew that era well enough to pull it off – that I’d lived in them from the unique experiences my father gave me. Not the nostalgic 50s of cinema and TV where every mother wears an apron and every father has a martini quick to hand. I wanted to write about the hardscrabble, rural 50s where the country was pulling itself out of the dark ages, contending with racism and a near-institutionalized caste system and dealing with extreme poverty that still exists today. Where the post-war boom went off without a bang, but a whimper.

I wanted to capture the mood of timelessness that I experienced as a child.

To that I added everything I was interested in at the time, a quirky syncretism of ideas: a Chandler-esque WWII-veteran hero, the blues and the birth of rock-n-roll, payola scandals, pirate radio stations, the Erlkönig, artist & repertoire agents, Lovecraftian horror (or Robert Chamberian or even Ambrose Biercian, to be more precise), Alan Lomax’s recordings of field hollers, Manly Wade Wellman’s Silver John, Flannery O’Connor dying of lupus, strange homecomings, evil books, and Nero Wolfe’s hidden history.

I wrote the book I wanted to read. I think that’s important. To write what you enjoy.

The plot goes something like this: shell-shocked WWII vet Bull Ingram is hired by Sam Phelps of Helios Studios (you might see a tiny resemblance to Sam Phillips of Sun Studios) to find a pirate radio station that broadcasts the music of a mysterious bluesman named Ramblin’ John Hastur, whose music is reputed to cause insanity, impregnate women, and raise the dead.

The novel is split: It’s the noir-styled story of Ingram finding this infernal blues artist, but it’s also the story of Sarah Rheinhart, a woman fleeing an abusive husband and returning back to her ancestral home with her daughter. She must come to grips with her family legacy while dealing with her angry, bedridden mother who’s dying of lupus.

For me, the writing of Southern Gods had a strange duality. The duality of the Southern thang, as the Drive-By Truckers sing. There was the wish-fulfillment of Ingram doing and saying all these cool, crime noir tropes – beating people and smoking and drinking whiskey by the gallon – and it was easy to see that the “I” at the beginning of Ingram’s name was just a substitute for first-person narration. Then there was the story of Sarah – her coming to grips with her relationship to her mother, her father, and how that reflects on her relationship to her own child. I have to be honest with myself: I have more in common with the female protagonist than Bull Ingram. She’s a mother. I am a father. I am not a muscle for the mob. Writing Ingram was difficult, but writing Sarah was easy, because her domestic life in the Big House – the Rheinhart Plantation – mirrors my experiences as a father of two girls.

In the end, I think Southern Gods is a rumination on parenting and sacrifice and love, which is what all my favorite books are about. The human heart in conflict with itself. And then there are the Old Gods mucking up the works. When in doubt, include a world-spanning malevolent god. That’s the ticket.


Southern Gods: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (via Webscriptions). Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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