On "Thorny jargon"

The Kirkus review of Consent Vol. 1 warns readers of “thorny jargon” – arising mainly from the use the gender-neutral pronouns se/ser throughout much of the novel.  I’m not about to bicker with a review I willingly posted, but would just note that these pronouns are an essential part of the world of the book. Once I had decided that most of the characters would not identify as male or female, the use of gender-neutral pronouns became inevitable and necessary. 

 

Lemit, Grist and Cusp do not understand themselves to be men or women, live in a society that finds such distinctions objectionable, and do not even have the habits of thought that organize people in this manner. To call them he or she would be a betrayal of their basic self-conception and the logic of their culture.

 

Yet we don’t have gender-neutral pronouns that have achieved consensus. They/them has become common – mainly I think because there are no other viable alternatives that are both familiar and – at this juncture at least – real words.  In real life they/them will do, but in fiction I find them problematic. I don’t like using a plural pronoun to refer a singular person. Moreover, deploying they/them clutters the page with these rather obtrusive words and forces the reader to riddle out where and when the pronouns are meant to be singular or truly plural.

 

I researched alternatives that have been proposed. Se/ser seemed among the most elegant of options, being visually very close to he/her and not too difficult to say. Once decided, I went all in. I found it difficult at first not using gender-specific pronouns. This wasn’t merely due to the mechanics of writing. I automatically wanted to think of the characters as either male or female, using this “elemental” characteristic as one around which I would organize my thoughts. Over time, it became more and more natural to conceptualize these characters as neither male nor female. The accoutrements of gender fell away, and they became uniquely themselves.    

 

One will notice that the chapters narrated from Djo’s perspective use he/him and she/her.  This is natural for Djo and reflects his world view. Interesting things happen when Djo interacts with the “city people” and he struggles to categorize them based on a typology they deny. 

 

I find this all fascinating to explore as a writer. But it is also very real. In writing Consent, I have reflected on how far flung a prediction it is that gender-neutral pronouns will become common currency. One can already see the problems of having to introduce oneself as this or that, and the “thorny” issues of deciding, without more, what to call another person. For this reason, we may not have to wait 800 years for gender-neutral pronouns to gain traction, and I can see my grandchildren entering an academic or professional world where they call their friends se/ser, or something very similar.  

 

-WW

Why No Blog? 

Nothing is sadder than running across a blog some writer began with much gusto on January 2, 2004, only to abruptly end on April 15, 2006. OK, a lot of things are sadder than that. But it gives me a little stab every time I see it. Just like it stabs me to see my own attempts to pen a steady stream of prose and poems over weeks, months, and years. These attempts have started (for me) with a great rush of energy only to devolve into a forced march – a Saturday morning ruined by the necessity of coming up with something clever to say. 

 

But the real reason I don’t like to blog is that it makes me unhappy, fills me with anxiety, makes me question my motivations: Isn’t this really about angling for likes? Aren’t I just trying to get attention by trickling words out into the World Wide Web? Do I really have anything interesting to say? Who am I anyway? Wouldn’t I rather spend my time working on a novel, or reading, or taking a walk? Why am I doing this?

 

Usually the answer to these questions is this: Someone out there says it’s the thing to do. I need to build up a “platform.” I need to create “content,” get people hooked, and monetized it. In short, I have to do to you what I hate people doing to me: pinning me to my phone, making me tap and scroll, contributing to my nearsightedness and painful texting neck. And what do you or I get out of it? Nothing much. A few minutes frittered instead of lived.

 

No, I would rather you go about your business, spend time with your family and friends, volunteer, go on a hike, read a book (how about Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson?), listen to a record (how about Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder?), see a movie (how about Moonlight by Barry Jenkins?), and when I’m ready, when I really think I’ve made something worth reading, I will put it in front of you. I will give it all I've got, and when you read it, I hope you won’t feel like I’ve wasted even one minute. I hope you will feel like I’ve given you a gift, not tried to monetize your attention. 

 

-WW