Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Storyteller and listener: an ongoing dynamic interaction between two brains

One of the points I strive to make when I'm teaching writing is that though the words on the page flow from the story in the writer's head, the words on the page aren't the story, but the means through which readers can imagine and re-create the story in their heads. Writers notice when the stories they've created differ from those re-created by readers more than they do the congruences-- presumably because we take the latter for granted and tend to assume that if we and our readers are both doing what we should, there ought not to be many differences between the created and re-created stories. Maybe that assumption is just hopeless wishful thinking. After all, the reasons for those discrepancies are many and many, not necessarily the fault of either side.

Given my longtime preoccupation with this relationship, I'm fascinated to find that neuroscientists are comparing, via fMRI, what happens in the brains of people telling a story with those hearing it. One  attempt at such a comparison is the paper Speaker-listener neural coupling underlies successful communication, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (July 26, 2010) available (free) online, by Greg J. Stephens, Lauren J. Silbert, and Uri Hasson.(One of the lovely features of this online publication is that rolling the cursor over hyperlinks will bring up figures and references without the user having to click away from the page to see them.)

I especially like that the authors characterize communication as an "ongoing dynamic interaction between two brains." Would it astonish you to learn that the authors report that the brains of those hearing a story mirror-- usually with a one-to-three-second delay-- what happens in the brains of the person telling the story? (Though of course once I start thinking about it, I have to wonder to what extent the brains of persons engaged in antagonistic communication might mirror one another.) The authors suggest that this "neural coupling resembles the action/perception coupling observed within mirror neurons." Particularly interesting for writers is that those listening to stories do a certain amount of anticipating-- and that the more their brains anticipate, the greater their comprehension of the story communicated:
Our analysis also identifies a subset of brain regions in which the activity in the listener's brain precedes the activity in the speaker's brain. The listener's anticipatory responses were localized to areas known to be involved in predictions and value representation (20–23), including the striatum and medial and dorsolateral prefrontal regions (mPFC, dlPFC). The anticipatory responses may provide the listeners with more time to process an input and can compensate for problems with noisy or ambiguous input (24). This hypothesis is supported by the finding that comprehension is facilitated by highly predictable upcoming words (25). Remarkably, the extent of the listener's anticipatory brain responses was highly correlated with the level of understanding (Fig. 4B), indicating that successful communication requires the active engagement of the listener (26, 27).
I've long believed that the stories that are least likely to be grossly misread are those that are in important ways already familiar to readers. Intelligibility is all about familiarity-- which is why it's so difficult for writers to get good readings for new, unfamiliar-to-the-reader stories. A more recent study conducted at Emory--reported here looked at how the brain reacts to metaphors:
"We see that metaphors are engaging the areas of the cerebral cortex involved in sensory responses even though the metaphors are quite familiar," says senior author Krish Sathian, MD, PhD, professor of neurology, rehabilitation medicine, and psychology at Emory University. "This result illustrates how we draw upon sensory experiences to achieve understanding of metaphorical language."
Sathian is also medical director of the Center for Systems Imaging at Emory University School of Medicine and director of the Rehabilitation R&D Center of Excellence at the Atlanta Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
Seven college students who volunteered for the study were asked to listen to sentences containing textural metaphors as well as sentences that were matched for meaning and structure, and to press a button as soon as they understood each sentence. Blood flow in their brains was monitored by functional magnetic resonance imaging. On average, response to a sentence containing a metaphor took slightly longer (0.84 vs 0.63 seconds).
In a previous study, the researchers had already mapped out, for each of these individuals, which parts of the students' brains were involved in processing actual textures by touch and sight. This allowed them to establish with confidence the link within the brain between metaphors involving texture and the sensory experience of texture itself.
"Interestingly, visual cortical regions were not activated by textural metaphors, which fits with other evidence for the primacy of touch in texture perception," says research associate Simon Lacey, PhD, the first author of the paper.
"I don't think that there's only one area responsible for metaphor processing," Sathian says. "Actually, several recent lines of research indicate that engagement with abstract concepts is distributed around the brain."
"I think our research highlights the role of neural networks, rather than a single area of the brain, in these processes. What could be happening is that the brain is conducting an internal simulation as a way to understand the metaphor, and that's why the regions associated with touch get involved. This also demonstrates how complex processes involving symbols, such as appreciating a painting or understanding a metaphor, do not depend just on evolutionarily new parts of the brain, but also on adaptations of older parts of the brain."
All of which underscores the importance of using sensory detail in fiction, no? (And probably in nonfiction, as well-- whenever possible.)

Thursday, April 25, 2013

A couple more links-- for the outrage

Amanda Filipacchi, in an op-ed for the New York Times, "Wikipedia's Sexism Toward Female Novelists," writes:
I JUST noticed something strange on Wikipedia. It appears that gradually, over time, editors have begun the process of moving women, one by one, alphabetically, from the “American Novelists” category to the “American Women Novelists” subcategory. So far, female authors whose last names begin with A or B have been most affected, although many others have, too. 

The intention appears to be to create a list of “American Novelists” on Wikipedia that is made up almost entirely of men. The category lists 3,837 authors, and the first few hundred of them are mainly men. The explanation at the top of the page is that the list of “American Novelists” is too long, and therefore the novelists have to be put in subcategories whenever possible. 

Too bad there isn’t a subcategory for “American Men Novelists.” 

People who go to Wikipedia to get ideas for whom to hire, or honor, or read, and look at that list of “American Novelists” for inspiration, might not even notice that the first page of it includes far more men than women. They might simply use that list without thinking twice about it. It’s probably small, easily fixable things like this that make it harder and slower for women to gain equality in the literary world. 
Read the whole piece here.

Allison Flood, at the Guardian, follows up with an update, noting:
Their observations sparked a widespread condemnation of the policy on social media. "Women writers are consistently underrepresented, their work receiving much less attention than that of their male counterparts. In 2012 the New York Review of Books reviewed only 40 female authors, as opposed to 215 male authors," wrote Abigail Grace Murdy on the publisher Melville House's blog. "The subcategory 'American women novelists' "simply reflects a widespread and belittling perception of women writers that already exists. But in reflecting that perception, Wikipedia perpetuates it, and the sexism marches on."
Wikipedia editors have now begun the task of adding the female writers back into the wider category, while debating the situation among themselves. "This is embarrassing us on a global basis. If you don't segregate males and gender unknowns, then don't segregate women (and that's how it's being perceived)," wrote one.
Another said: "Removing women from the list of novelists is like removing black or foreign-born novelists. Its effect is inherently biased. For those who want to find women novelists, a sublist is acceptable, but it cannot fairly involve removal from the main list. The effect is too discriminatory and drastic. The same applies to all women-nationality lists (not only novelists). I think this kind of category, based on the characteristics of the novelist, is very different from a subcategory based on the characteristics of the novels, eg, mystery novelists or science-fiction novelists."
Read her entire piece here.

Stuff of interest

First off, congratulations to Nicola Griffith! The Lambda Literary Foundation has announced that she is one of two writers being awarded the 2013 James Duggins Outstanding Mid-Career Novelist Prize. The judges commented: "Trebor Healey and Nicola Griffith are both writers who are unafraid to take risks in their writing, stretching the strictures of genre to ask bigger questions. They use the lens of their LGBT experience as a prism through which universal themes of love, society, and the meaning of life are refracted, disassembled and reassembled in ways that are at once challenging and rewarding to the reader. Their work deepens and enriches the tapestry of LGBT literature: worthy of a place in the modern canon of English literature while expanding the notions of what LGBT literature can be."

Also of interest:

--Over at Strange Horizons, Niall Harrison has produced his annual gender statistics fest for reviewing in the sf/f field. I'm sorry to say his results are pretty much what they were last year. Do check them out here.

--Ethan Robinson productively continues the conversation on Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312 with his thoughtful post, Proust on Mercury and other issues in coming to terms with 2312.

 --The Digital Public Library of America launched last week. Among other things, the site offers its Digital Library Digest, which collects annotated links to news about digital issues as well as about public libraries. The Digest for April 25, 2013, for instance, links to five items, including an announcement from the House Judiciary Panel that they'll be starting "a comprehensive review of copyright law" and an article on Simon & Schuster's pilot library ebook project. The DPLA has an interesting (to me) web address:  http://dp.la/.

--Over at The Guardian, Alison Flood discusses digital matters of concern for readers, authors, and publishers: Ebook anxieties increase as publishing revolution rolls on.

--And finally, also over at Strange Horizons this week, Julia Rios interviews Rose Lemberg in Noticing Language.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The April 2013 issue of the CSZ is out

The April 2013 issue of The Cascadia Subduction Zone is now available at http://thecsz.com. I have a long essay in it myself, one prompted by a recent re-reading of Raccoona B. Sheldon's "Your Faces, O My Sister, Filled of Light" and the reflections on changing perceptions of sex and gender that it (inevitably, I think) provoked. I've written on this subject before, but obviously its not through with me yet. The issue has a second (shorter) essay, for our Grandmother Magma column, that was especially pleasurable to read: Karen Joy Fowler's piece on Sylvia Townsend Warner's classic feminist fantasy, Lolly Willowes (or the Loving Huntsman).

Here's the entire table of contents for the issue:

Current Issue
Vol. 3 No. 2 — April 2013

Asking the Wrong Questions: Alice Sheldon,
the Gender Learning Curve, and Me
  by L. Timmel Duchamp
  by Kelly Rose Pflug-Back

Grandmother Magma
Lolly Willowes
(or the Loving Huntsman)

by Sylvia Townsend Warner
  reviewed by Karen Joy Fowler

These Burning Streets
by Kelly Rose Pflug-Back
  reviewed by Evan Peterson

Sister Mine
by Nalo Hopkinson
  reviewed by Ama Patterson

Necessary Ill
by Deb Taber
  reviewed by Nic Clarke

A Stranger in Olondria
by Sofia Samata
  reviewed by Nisi Shawl

How to Greet Strangers
by Joyce Thompson
  reviewed by Daniel José Older

Bio-Punk: Stories from the Far Side of Research

edited by Ra Page
  reviewed by Victoria Elisabeth Garcia

Featured Artist
Cheryl Richey

Monday, April 8, 2013

Gheorghe Sasarman's Squaring the Circle

Aqueduct Press has just taken delivery of Squaring the Circle: A Pseudotreatise of Urbogony, which collects 26 fantastic tales by Gheorghe Sasarman, selected and translated into English by Ursula K. Le Guin. The printed book is a small gem: Kath has outdone herself in designing this one, which includes graphics for every tale, provided by Mr Sasarman. We're selling both the printed book and the e-book editions now through Aqueduct's site (www.aqueductpress.com), and they'll shortly be available in the usual places.

There's a story behind this book (no, actually at least two stories, first the author's, and then the translator's), which I'm happy to relate to y'all. And we have a lengthy, thoughtful blurb from Eleanor Arnason (which we couldn't use in its entirety on the back cover of the book) as well as two advanced reviews. So. Let me start with the stories behind the book. Mr. Sasarman writes in his postscript to the French edition of the book:
The idea of writing a book of brief descriptions of imaginary cities, condensing into it the grandeur and tragedy of five millennia of urban history, came to me by chance, while I was in charge of the Architecture and Urbanism section of the review Scanteia.  A writer had protested in an open letter against the demolition of an historic building, and the editors asked me to respond, which I did by writing the story “Musaeum.”  It was the autumn of 1969, a year after the Russian tanks invaded Prague, an invasion openly condemned by Ceausescu, a time when many people, not only in Bucharest, believed (what a mistake!) that Rumania was evolving towards democracy.
By the time Ursula saw the book, it had been published in French and Spanish translations. She first encountered the book in the Spanish edition, rendered by translator Mariano Martín Rodríguez. As she writes in her introduction to Aqueduct's edition of the book:
A year or two ago I was sent a handsome little book titled La Quadratura del Círcolo. It was inscribed to me in English and a language that I thought was Rumanian. With it was a charming letter from Mariano Martín Rodríguez, explaining that the book was his translation from the Rumanian original by Gheorghe Sasarman, and that both he and the authorhoped I would find it interesting and might have some idea how to go about finding someone to translate it into English.

The book was a set of brief stories, each about a different city—like Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, of which I’m very fond. That similarity was interesting, and the first couple of stories seemed promising, but I was busy, and my Spanish is slow. So after thanking the sender and author I did nothingabout the book for quite a while. But it kept on lying around in one place or another in my study. Maybe just because I liked the cover (a splendid Tower of Babel by an anonymous Fleming), or maybe because it was exerting the effect.

Some books, unread books, exert the effect. It’s not rational,not easy to explain. They don’t glow or vibrate, though that’s what they’d do in an animated movie. They just are in view, they’re there. There’s this book, on the shelf in a book store or the library or like this one in a pile on my desk, and it is visible, silently saying read me. And even if I have no idea what it is and what it’s about, I have to read it.

So, gradually, I obeyed.
The end result of Ursula's compulsion was the book Aqueduct published.

And then there was my own compulsion... Aqueduct Press exists to publish feminist science fiction. Squaring the Circle is by no stretch of the imagination feminist. (In fact, Publishers Weekly's review make an oblique point about this.) Nevertheless, these spare, dryly and mischievously humorous tales conjured such visions in my mind that I couldn't resist them and found myself agreeing with Ursula that they needed to be available to the part of the world that reads mostly English-language texts. In fact, sitting here at my desk, typing with the book before me, every time I stop to look something up in the book, a random sentence on a random page will catch my eye, and I'll just have to read the entire tale. (I've done this three times since I started writing this post.) The tales are short, of course. but I'm pretty sure that most people will end up reading them more than once.

Now, to Eleanor's praise for the book:
Squaring the Circle reminds me of some of my favorite books: Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Angelica Gordodischer’s Kalpa Imperial and Ursula K Le Guin’s Changing Planes. I don’t know if there’s a name for this kind of fiction – Faux history? Fantastic geography? Imaginary anthropology? Whatever it is, I love it. Humans have always liked to hear about fabulous journeys and strange distant places. Othello told Desdemona, “of the Cannibals that each other eat, The Anthropophagi and men whose heads Do grow beneath their shoulders. This to hear Would Desdemona seriously incline.” Maybe books like this meet our need for amazing stories, now that the world is mostly mapped.
Squaring the Circle is highly readable. (I got it through in one sitting.) And it’s fun. There is a playfulness in this kind of fiction, a subversive undercutting of the 19th-century idea of the novel. It gives us all the pleasure of a travel guide, and the additional pleasure of being – in spite of the meticulous description -- unreal. As it turns out, a cityscape can be as interesting as a bildungsroman and as meaningful. The first section of Squaring the Circle, “Vavylon,” is a fine description of a class society that claims to be egalitarian. Anyone can climb to the top of ziggurat, except the ramps are greased. I thought of Stalinist Romania when I read it, but it could also apply to the US.
Here's the Publishers Weekly review:
These trippy, cutting 24 stories, chosen by SF/F grande dame Le Guin from a collection of 36 originally published in Romanian in 1975, inevitably draw comparisons to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Both explore society and human psyche through architectural descriptions of imaginary cities, but Sasarman’s masterfully crafted prose poems feel more immediate, serving as spellbinding descriptions of architectural impossibilities as well as slyly subversive social commentary. The equality of all citizens is an enshrining principle of the ziggurat Vavylon, with steep ramps oiled every day to prevent ascent, though descent is very rapid. The elite of Musaeum create immortal artworks that remain unknown, for they are too busy with their own works to look at one another’s. The intrepid explorers of Selenia vainly hunt for a building site uncontaminated by the psychic refuse of Earth’s poets, lovers, and dreamers, which litters most of the lunar surface. Perhaps the only area where Sasarman falls short is in his rare, dismissive portrayals of women (Le Guin’s introduction implies some of the untranslated stories are worse in this respect), all the more startling when contrasted with the extraordinary, timeless nature of his prose. (May) Reviewed on: 03/11/2013
And here's a bit of Rick Kleffel's review:
Any one of these stories will craft in the reader's mind an entire world, a society, a country and then slowly but surely transform that imaginary way station into a refracted aspect of what is happening here and now, and ever and forever. This is the sort of book that is well worth seeking out, as are the cities of the imagination it creates for us. —Rick Kleffel, The Agony Column, Jan 30, 2013 (read the whole review)

Criticism alone is not an Assault, Witch Hunt, Lynch Mob, or Crucifixion

I try to draw a line between criticism and violence.

I do, actually, get online threats of actual violence. This isn't unusual for bloggers, especially ones who belong to oppressed groups. I tend to get mine because I'm a woman, a feminist and a Jew. If someone receives rape and/or death threats -- and people do, far too often, especially if they belong to marginalized groups -- I find that horrifying.

However, I also find it clearly distinct from criticism.

Criticism (especially in a social justice context) is often described as assault, a witch hunt, a lynch mob, or a crucifixion. (There are a couple other go-to metaphors, but those are the major ones.) Of these, "witch hunt" and "lynch mob" are the most upsetting. However, they are all attempts to silence criticism by comparing it to a violent, unacceptable act. It is unacceptable to assault someone, ever; therefore, it's implied, that the criticism is likewise by its very nature unacceptable.

The use of the terms witch hunts and lynch mobs (or mobs in general) also implies that the criticism is not being offered in good faith, and certainly not with thoughtfulness, deliberation or sincerity. Instead, it implies that the criticism is the result of a mass delusion. It implies that there is nothing to criticize at all--that the very nature of what is being criticized is superstition--since witches don't exist and lynched victims are innocent. It implies that the only goal of criticism is bloodletting, that it will only be satisfied by burning stakes, pressing stones, or hung corpses.

Now, I do not mean to imply that no one who offers criticism is ever an asshole. People are totally assholes. You can easily show me examples of someone criticizing someone else, even taking a position I broadly agree with, and acting like a flaming asshole. And I will look at that and say, "Wow, that person is acting like a flaming asshole." This happens--it is, in fact, inevitable. Groups of people contain assholes.

I'm down with criticizing assholes for being assholes. But the terms "witch hunt" etc assume that the grounds for criticism are vaporous. When applied to groups, it also implies that no one (or almost no one) in the group is offering good faith or meritorious arguments.

It is sometimes true that a person is, in fact, offering a critique that stems from delusional, bad faith bloodthirstiness. It is sometimes true that groups are doing the same. When a group of people bullies a trans person until they commit suicide, I am comfortable saying that this is the result of delusion (transphobia is based on delusional principles), bad faith (transphobia itself may be something an individual feels in good faith; bullying is not an activity pursued in good faith), and bloodthirstiness (as it ends in death). Bullying exists at an intersection where words can become assault. That intersection *does* exist.

But people are very free with the comparisons of criticism to violence. And I would counsel being, instead, very strict with them.

Be aware of (among other things):

*The stakes. Is physical safety actually on the line? With a bullied gay teenager, it may be. With an adult blogger being criticized by anti-racist bloggers, it's probably not.

*Whose history you are invoking. Are you defending a person who is (in this argument) privileged by comparing their situation to violence or death that was explicitly directed toward people who were (in the salient situations) oppressed? Are you comparing a person whose speech is being criticized for being racist to someone who was killed by a lynch mob?

*Are you legitimately comfortable saying that the people you're accusing of participating in a witch hunt would like to see their victims subjected to physical violence? Or, instead, when you fill in the abstraction of "people criticizing this person I'd like to defend" with "Blogger X," does the metaphor start to make you uncomfortable? When you fill in the actual implications of the metaphor by defamiliarizing the language (instead of "this person is engaged in a witch hunt," something like "this person experiencing a mass delusion that makes them want to see people die"), does that make the comparison seem apt or appalling?

*(As a complicating factor to the above, are you using the history of the oppressed group against them? Are you using the real, historical deaths of people of color to suggest that criticism from people of color is like murder?)

Just because speech is being criticized doesn't mean that the criticism is legitimate. People can offer good faith criticisms, even criticisms that are theoretically rooted in correct ideas such as anti-racism, that are still totally wrong. People can be unreasonable assholes, and groups can pursue unreasonable, assholish arguments. As noted, sometimes speech does actually rise to the level of actual assault when violence is involved, either directly (as in threats) or implicitly (as in bullying). But most of the time, even the people who are being unreasonable jerks aren't actually arguing in bad faith or lusting for blood. They are arguing stupid points and doing it stupidly. Rather than attempting to shut them down by calling their criticism assault (unacceptable in any circumstances) as if it's the fact of *criticism itself* that is the problem, the best response is usually to explain why their *particular* criticism sucks. Unless their criticism *really is* assault, in which case, please do call it out. Explain why. Be savvy and aware. But don't just use these terms as short-hand or rhetorical flourish when they're not really what you mean. They're silencing, inacccurate, and in some cases offensive.

Real people really died as a result of lynch mobs. It's particularly insensitive for white Americans to use that as a metaphor for someone being criticized. As a Jew who lost a lot of relatives in the Holocaust, I would be upset if the go-to metaphor was to imply that criticism was like pushing people onto trains that would take them to gas chambers. That's taking the deaths of my relatives experienced and making them something trivial.

If you find yourself wanting to argue that I'm taking metaphorical language too seriously, then I ask you to really stop and think about the things you care most about, the ones that pinch and hurt, and imagine them being used this way. Try to take it out of the abstract for yourself. Find the places where you are tender. Now really, and in good faith, imagine that everyone presses on those tender places all the time, that they see them as fodder for winning internet arguments, and not actual, painful things. If you've done that and you still feel that you want to argue abstractions about language, then all right. I won't agree with you, but I'll believe you've tried to take my position into account. But please, first go to the place that hurts, and then imagine that being used against you as a way to stop you from arguing the positions you are passionate about.