Tools, Not Rules: A Twitter Thread

Posted here for posterity: 

1. Looking at a conversation of some crankybottoms dissing me (among others) as a postmodern scribbler who has no time for the great writers of western civilization and therefore has no knowledge of the “deep norms” of genre and therefore my writing sucks. Well —

2. Being accused of having no time for the great writers of Western Civilization is amusing to me, as someone a) who went to the University of Chicago in the era of its “core curriculum,” b) has a philosophy degree from there, c) briefly had Saul Bellow as his thesis advisor.

3. (Not to mention having gone to a high school where I was made to read Cervantes, Shakespeare, Shaw, Twain, Sophocles, Stendhal, Conrad and Homer among others, and where I did a semester-long senior project on the life of HL Mencken.)

4. Likewise, the implication that I know very little about the field in which I write, nor understand the “deep norms” of the genre, is interesting. As an exercise for the reader, three titles of mine which constitute a counter-argument: OMW, Fuzzy Nation and Redshirts.

5. If my writing sucks (I don’t think it does, but I’m naturally biased), it’s not because of a lack of understanding of the Dead White Male Writers of History. In that department, I’m full up, my friends.

6. However, the point here is not to defend my bona fides, re: Dead White Male Writers of History. My point is that the Dead White Male Writers of History are not the end point, defining “proper” writing forever and ever, amen. They aren’t, and they don’t.

7. The chucklewits whining about the “deep norms” of genre appear to be under the impression that deviation from what they see as these norms is a heresy, i.e., not “real” genre writing, which is a convenient excuse to minimize and belittle anyone who colors outside the lines.

8. In point of fact an unwillingness to question and to argue against these presumed norms would doom a genre to uselessness and stagnation. And, I don’t know, maybe these dudes like their genre being “same shit, different day,” but lots of us don’t. Fuck “deep norms.”

9. These fumblethinkers believe anyone who doesn’t obey what they consider “the rules” are ignorant of those rules. Surprise! They’re not. But because they’re freely acting and thinking, they see these rules as tools: they use some, ignore others and make new ones when necessary.

10. Thus is genre and literature generally advanced and improved, and writers who follow this generation are offered more and different tools, which they can use (or ignore) in their own time. It’s a dynamic, not static, process. Which is as it should be.

11. In sum, don’t confuse lack of unthinking fealty to the past and its norms with ignorance of it. It will make *you* look, well, ignorant. And it suggests that you are interested in nothing more than “same shit, different day.” Which is on you, friend, and no one else.



To thank you for your indulgence whilst I did an 11-tweet thread about writing, please accept this picture of Smudge.

Smudge, looking passionately interested in something, probably food.

71 Comments on “Tools, Not Rules: A Twitter Thread”

  1. What I don’t get is if they are decrying the state of current SF, why don’t they go write what they want to read? It’s not as if word processing software is secretly controlled by modern writers! And if they’re such a huge unmet market their work will fly off the shelves, making the new authors both happy and rich!

  2. Twitter. So full of angry people who like to take pot shots because they know nobody can slap them aside the head.

  3. Gregg Bender:

    I mean, I was a professional critic for years, so you understand if I find that saying, uh, incomplete.


    Some of them are in fact writing it and seem flummoxed that the adulation is not immediately forthcoming.

  4. I imagine the H.L. Mencken, in particular, is standing you in good stead these days. :D He also had to spend more than his fair share of time eviscerating buffoons.

  5. I get a kick out of trying to keep a straight face while saying, “I am proud to be a member of society.” Yes, and proudly embracing our onrushing future.

    Having said that, I sure feel homesick for the towns of Ray Bradbury’s Mars… and I’ve never even been to Mars.

  6. It seems that Smudge don’t cares about those asseholes. Smudge is a wise cat.
    I’m 44, so I grew up reading a lot of Dead White Male Writers of History. Today’s Alive Awesome Diverse Writers are waaaaaay better, with so much different voices and points of view and cultural backgrounds of so many talented people. For a kid, growing up reading today’s SF/F writers must amazing!

  7. Gee, this stuff is still spinning off of ESR’s old “iron ring” blog piece, eh? Now revived as the “Order of Defenders” notion, I gather.

    His big mistake is believing that his fans average as smart as he is, I’m afraid. He’s described one way a militia could be well regulated — make the gun owners responsible for one another’s mental health, because they ought to become aware of the nutcases before anyone else notices them.

    Regrettably the nutcases are desperately attracted to power without responsibility.

  8. I like a lot of classic F&SF. And I like a lot of new stuff.

    The new stuff is, indeed, different. Whether it’s ‘better’ or not is, of course, a matter of opinion. What it certainly is though, is timely and relevant to today’s society and issues. The issues that Cervantes wrote about don’t hold much relevance to today’s society. To be sure the human parts do, but the societal parts do not, because that society is long gone.

    In a generation, these new writers will also find themselves not quite ‘locked in’ to the new societal world. Some will expand their horizons and continue to break new ground. Others will stall out and become less relevant – even though they may still be good writers, make a decent living and produce entertaining work.

    I expect the folks criticizing John are those who wish society would return to the days of the 1950s and 1960s. They love the writers of those eras because that is what they see is relevant and as the work that should be shaping, informing and commenting on society.

    There are some good things about that era of society. A lot of them actually. But there are plenty of bad things as well. We got some stuff right, like making racism and sexism unacceptable – and we got some things wrong, like losing the concepts of thinking of people as being worthwhile rather than disposable (a big reason, I think, why wages have not kept pace with expenses).

    Those folks think of the ‘Golden Age’ and want it back, not realizing that the gold has rather a lot of nasty tarnish in the areas that they aren’t looking at. Which is often true of the writing from that era as well.

  9. These guys would fit in well at the Académie française.

    As to “deep norms”, I wonder how much Olaf Stapledon they’ve read.

    (re comment a few above: who is “ESR”??)(after research: He (and I >KNOW< it's a "he") seems to be a delusional nincompoop who sleeps with his gun, sucks his thumb, and has a lot of mental issues.)

  10. I would LOVE to read the Senior Paper on Mencken! I know that there’s a chance you are embarrassed by it, as your writing has come along in your professional life, but still, I’d love to see what the HS Scalzi thought (I know the HS Kakalios was an a-hole, so I’m not volunteering to share anything from that period in MY life, thank you very much).

  11. I’m so old that I remember a lot of the same arguments leveled against Ellison, Aldiss and the New Wave back in the 60s and 70s….

  12. Erikc Raygun??? He fell off his fucking rocker at least a decade ago. Or intentionally pole vaulted off it. Depending on who you ask. Does anyone besides gun nutter anti government bro nerds care what he has to say these days?

  13. I would think that the deepest of “Deep Norms” of SF would be stretching boundaries of time, space, plot, character and style.
    “Deep Norms” reminds me either of eternally-churning conspiracy theories or the Cheers customer who switched his custom to an underground bar…

  14. With respect to my Lord Commander’s comment on the “Golden Age” above, I strongly suspect that the putative auric material was never anything more valuable than vigorously polished knobs of brass.
    There’s certainly much polishing of knobs going on in the puppy verse.

  15. Seems to me that the only appropriate response is “Do not cite the Deep Norms to me! I was there when they were rewritten!”
    With apologies, of course, to CS Lewis.

  16. gwangung, I was thinking much the same as I read Scalzi’s post.

    What I don’t understand is why Scalzi is supposed to be both deeply versed in the great writers of Western Civilization AND writing in the style of fiction written for pulps. Is it really necessary to be a universally recognized master of both highbrow culture and lowbrow culture to be a writer of skilled middlebrow science fiction? Also, I wonder why they don’t demand that Scalzi in addition have deep knowledge of calculus, physics, and astrophysics? Those would seem just as relevant, if not more so. Why the weird combination of literary snobbery and antisnobbery as the sine qua non?

  17. Those guidelines work for a lot of things. I’ve had similar thoughts drive me up the wall about music as well. Just because I don’t want to be Karlheinz Stockhausen or The Beatles or Dizzy Gillespie, doesn’t mean I haven’t heard of them. For fuck’s sake, as if any of them were never criticized endlessly in their own time for destroying Western Civilization.

    Seriously, I think most of these kinds of critics are resentful and passive-aggressive, because they don’t actually do anything. And they wear their pretensions on their sleeve like a Gordon Gartrell.

  18. We live in times where the messenger is considered of a bigger importance than the message. A prolongation of the times where Michael Crichton introduced in 1960 an essay written by Orwell as his own and got it back rated with a B minus. He decided to pursue a medical degree instead, since Harvard’s English literature faculty was apparently too exigent.

  19. I’ve read a lot of those ODWMW in my time, and while observations of the human condition usually remain about the same, the culture they reflect on has usually changed significantly, sometimes rapidly. Despite Dickens being one of the pantheon of ODWMW held up as being a standard to aspire to, I had trouble getting into his writing, not least is which his era demanded being paid by the word, and Dickens had a lot of words. Sometimes good, sometimes not so good, but lots. Many others in his echelon, likewise; not always the same reasons, but because things have moved along. Today’s notable writer may or may not keep their crown, and that is as it should be.

  20. So, John, I take it you’re not going to write an updated version of ‘The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress’? Good thing I didn’t throw my copy away ;-)

  21. Not to dig too deep into puppy isms at this late date, I’ll just cast my own vote that the juxtaposition of “Science fiction is the best because it is the literature of the future” and “not that future, the one Heinlein promised me in 1958!” will never stop being tragically funny.
    Also thought not SF related so much, the absurdity of treating past great writers as if they were not rule breakers in their time. My daughter has gotten deeply into “Hamilton. ” I suspect that if Shakespeare could be brought back to life and given the background knowledge of US history and modern culture to understand the show he’d enjoy the heck out of it.

  22. This sounds like the same crap that the old guard was giving the New Wave SF writers in the 60s and 70s: i.e. It’s a bunch of crusty old fogeys who can’t stand them damn kids playing with their toys in a way they didn’t.

  23. There really is a difference between criticism and crankery, though they may be embodied in the same person.

  24. The phrase “the adulation is not immediately forthcoming” (see above) is a classic all by itself, if I may say so.

  25. @adonisus – fogeydom isn’t an age, it’s an attitude. There are plenty of younger things who think John is Doing It Wrong, AIUI.

  26. I haven’t seen the thread in question but on reading your comments on it, you’ll be happy to know that my first thought was “JOHN WENT TO UCHICAGO.”

    (Molly is really enjoying UChicago! Heads back on Friday!)

  27. Are these ‘deep Joel’s anything like a ‘deep state’, or am I just confused?
    Sounds like the same.

  28. Figures you’d like Mencken. Iconoclasts of a feather.

    BTW, as memory serves, those paragons of traditional writing, Cervantes, Dante and Milton, were widely condemned in the day for their temerity in writing in the vernacular instead of Latin.

  29. @ BW:
    What I don’t understand is why Scalzi is supposed to be both deeply versed in the great writers of Western Civilization AND writing in the style of fiction written for pulps.

    Doublethink is plusneeded to bellyfeel Pupsoc. Scalzi must be wrong. All else is crimethink.

  30. Scratching my head over what Smudge is sitting on. There’s a cord leading off it. An electric heated cat cushion, perhaps?

  31. It wasn’t just the New Wave when I was young–there were members of the Old Guard who were grumbling loudly about all the “hippy ecology claptrap” and “glorifying weird eastern religions” in a little book called…Dune!

    @Peter: that’s clearly the cat charger! How else would he recharge his cat?

  32. I’ve “upvoted” xtifr and Mr. Dalliard.

    Your commenters here are often like the “Surprise extra story you can download for free,” at the end of your blog posts. It’s great.

    Thanks also for the Smudge picture. It’s like chocolate.

  33. Deep Norm is, as the name suggests, one of the Deep Ones, also known as the Children of Dagon. He’s a little more excitable than Deep Laura, but still basically a good fish-person-thing. Not like Deep Steve, that guy will really get under your scales.

  34. Chucklewits……..Fumblethinkers……..Classic …..If those are not in the urban dictionary next to Hoopleheads the internet community is sadly lacking…There is some deep norm for them to contemplate on along with that lint from their belly buttons. Keep on writing Scalzi….Entertaining as ever!

  35. Life is not exactly going to plan here in the thoroughly confused U.K. where some of our politicians are behaving as if they stepped straight out of 1958 Heinlein and think that anyone not joining them is literally a traitor.

    Admittedly they’re not well informed on the definition of treason but it’s a bit unnerving to recognise characters from 60 years ago now perambulating this not very green and not very pleasant land.

    So, thank you for the analysis, and thank you for the picture of Smudge. I needed it!

  36. Cheer up Stevie, you’re not alone. Here in the States we have a ‘leader’ who seriously believes that personal loyalty to himself should always ‘trump’ actual patriotism.

  37. But wait, the earth isn’t flat and the Atlantic doesn’t connect with the Pacific?

    Dana: we had a previous leader who thought it was fine to weaponize an entire agency to use against their opponents, spy on people they didn’t like and be surround by people who lacked poor leadership skills.

  38. I think you give these people too much credit. Haters will hate, no mater what you do or write.
    By responding, you give them more fuel to go on.
    Nice to meet you Smudge!

  39. Ah, but have you read the “Para Handy” stories of Neil Munro, or the “Angus Og” tales of Ewen Bain? Hmm? Okay I admit it, I am just trying to get more people reading classic Scottish writers; everybody does Rabbie Burns, and I admit that Tam O’Shanter is crying out for a big budget movie based on that poem, but there is more to Scottish culture than Burns. People should read these authors more.

    Plus Para Handy would lend itself very easily to a sci-fi spin, imagine a Trek show based on the various freighter captains serving remote colonies at the edge of the Federation, always getting pushed farther and farther out by the expansion of the Federation’s no money philosophy and Starfleet taking over their roles. Now give it a Scottish accent, that would be Para Handy… In Space. And Angus Og is chockful of fantasy and “soft sci-fi” plot devices.

    Sorry for hijacking your article a bit there, John.

  40. “Crankybottoms”, “chucklewits”, “fumblethinkers”, neologisms in the best Shakespearean tradition.

  41. While of course I enjoy your deep thoughts on crankbottoms and chucklewits . . .
    That is one fine picture of a fine looking Smudge!

  42. Truly, you have to defend nothing. FWMOIW, your art is great entertainment. I look forward to reading everything that you write. I think I have most of it. I am looking forward to whatever comes next.

    On some level, these attacks must bother you otherwise you could easily ignore them and go on about your business.

    A few years before I retired I rediscovered my supreme enjoyment of Science Fiction. Fantasy not so much, pretty much limited to The Hobbit and LOTR. Anyway, OMW was what kicked it back into high gear, so thanks for that.

    As a kid of the ’50s, I loved SF. I subscribed to Analog and read everything that appeared on the School or our tiny rural Library’s shelves. I bought a lot of paperbacks and many were given to me as B’day, Christmas, etc. gifts. I regularly bought books with a book of the month club for SF. At the time I read and have fond memories of reading the popular authors of SF from that era.
    When I restarted my SF reading I went back to reread some of the stuff that I remember fondly.

    You know the feeling that you get when you find an old TV show that you loved and watched devotedly as a kid or young adult and then when you rewatch it you chuckle to yourself about how you can’t believe how really liked that stuff. Well, that is why I stopped (for the most part) rereading ’50s and ’60s SF.

    The art has changed. The future imagined then is now. The imagination of future is now in your hands and other writers of the current age. I am enjoying the new imaginings.

  43. … One more thought.
    It is likely that sometime in the, probably not distant, future, SF authors will be criticized for not being true to the ‘authors like John Scalzi’ canon.

  44. SF today is more dynamic and alive than anytime before and has a great future due to the fact that it is no longer limited to dead white males. SF is living proof that diversity is powerful and the only way to continue to the future.

  45. It happens that in the last month or two, I’ve been re-reading a lot of sf/f/h, particularly things I haven’t read in 25 years or more, as a change of pace from stressful personal circumstances. I’ve enjoyed a lot of it, and have burbled happily about it on Facebook and gotten friends interested in reading some of it for the first time. But I’ve also had grumbles about a lot of it in various ways. And fundamentally, I just don’t see a lot of it as particularly relevant to someone who’s living in 2019 and interested in reading and/or writing sf/f/h now.

    With very few exceptions, for each work of decades gone by that I think has an influence worth taking on board, there’s more recent work that’s likely to have the same kind of influence, with fewer negative elements from ye olde time culture and likely with a higher level of craft overall. There’s very little of any of this I’d recommend to an up-and-coming fan or aspiring writer over reading recently published history, science, etc., along with relatively recent fiction.

  46. Bruce, I did the same with “Foundation”: I should not have.

    Raise your hands if y’all were around for “Dangerous Visions” and the brouhaha it engendered.

  47. Eric: oh, yeah, Foundation is on my list of regrets. I have all the sympathy for wanting cleverness to triumph over violence, but ugh. Greg Bear’s The Pyschohistorian was good, though.

    I was a kid for the original Dangerous Visions but saw the arguments in letter columns and, a few years later, fanzines. Some things don’t change much. :)

  48. Bruce Baugh: Have you looked at the Library of America multi-volume/multi-novel American Science Fiction of the sets? (Well, the 1950s set, anyway–the 1960s set will be released in November.) I mention them because I reviewed the ’50s set and am reviewing the ’60s set now. The selections are not (as I will point out in the current review) statistically representative, but they do show what the field could produce at the top of its game, even in the often-reviled 1950s (when I started reading it).

    Most popular fiction does not age well, partly because of embedded attitudes or unexamined assumptions that also don’t age well, but most often (in my experience) because it just isn’t as good as the best its time could produce. I spent my youth reading the mysteries and historical novels of my parents’ generation, and not all of them are as good as, say, Patrick O’Brian–but then, most of the current O’Brian imitators aren’t as good as their model, either, *or* as good as C. S. Forester, whose shoes O’Brian was commissioned to fill.

    And I will point out that plenty of canonical literature (Homer, Ovid, Shakespeare, Jane Austen*) gets the same kind of “this isn’t relevant/harmonious with my 21st-century sensibility” response from college students as “old” SF does from younger readers. I take this to be a function of youth and inexperience and a certain smugness about how sensitive and with-it we are now that we have escaped those musty Olden Days.

    * My wife teaches all these writers and gets this reaction every term from a segment of her students.

  49. Oops–I should point out that only the first paragraph is aimed directly at Bruce–the rest is the predictable, impatient grumblings of an old man tired of being told he’s insufficiently with-it.

  50. So many things supposedly destroy Western Civilization over the centuries, it’s a wonder it has ever existed. Oh wait, there isn’t actually a “Western Civilization” anyway. Best way to ruin something — have it never exist.

  51. Russell Letson: No, I’m re-reading out of my personal history. It’s primarily a way for me to inject some good feeling and sense of connection with my own past at a time when personal and social stress and alienation are very high.

    I am therefore not engaging in any sort of dueling smugness about who doesn’t know what.

  52. Didn’t think you were, Bruce–I was just pointing out a nice cache of Old SF. Everything after the first paragraph is addressed to the ambient air.

  53. To our gracious host – I don’t Twit, therefore haven’t seen/don’t care to see the complaints to which you respond. Mentioned in the comments, though, is a person who purports to be libertarian. Isn’t the premise behind that to go about your business any way you damn-well please, while letting others go about theirs? I’d like to know what there is in libertarian philosophy that says, “I’m holding up several hoops here, and unless you jump through all of them in quick succession, you are insufficient, in my view.” Anyone who’d do that might as well be wearing the jackboots they so often complain about on the feet of others.

    I myself am allergic to any sentence which begins with, “You should.”

    P.S. Smudge is adorable.

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