Giant shoulders

Each January, I subscribe to a lot of newsletters.

I then sort them - 'behaviourally' - throughout the year. If I let two in a row go unread then I unsubscribe. By the end of the year: my inbox is down to the stuff I actually really read, rather than say I do. Success!

What fell by the wayside this year? Oddly enough, pretty much everything from magazines and newspapers. Which seems weird, but I mostly use 'proper' journalism for news and sports content, both of which I was already finding for myself. By the time the weekly email showed up, it was old news.

What proved sticky? Politics (Red Box, until it paywalled; then Politico). Also, automated searches for research on specific topics, from sites like Sage and Taylor & Francis. I figured I'd burn out on politics and never click the latter, but, who, well, it is December, I'm still hypnotised by Brexit and I've read a lot of abstracts.

And, of course, newsletters from individuals.

I thought I'd share a few that seem to be in for the long haul.

From Damien, of the Technoccult newsletter:

It remains true that I only got job offers when I stopped hiding the "weird parts" of my work. Just as I only started meeting the wonderful friends and colleagues you have, once I said "fuck it, this is me" and said "this is what I want to do, here's how I plan to do it," on all my CVs and applications.

It is not always easy to do so and survive in this world, but when possible—when you can—take the time and energy to craft the space in which you can be you, as thoroughly and completely as possible.

Damien's in academia, and he writes about technology and magic and ethics and, well, everything. In this case, in a self-reflective moment, he shares more about the specific barriers (and rewards) that stem from being oneself in an academic environment.

His experience also holds true in creative agencies, or any other service industry where 'culture' is one of the distinguishing factors.  Clients and projects and co-workers can be pretty transitory in our industry: finding a place that, despite all the chaos, allows you to be you - or, to sound like an Instagram post, the best version of yourself - is incredibly important. Like Damien, I've got a odd CV and an, uh,irrepressible me-ness. But I've been lucky enough to find professional spaces (including my current one) that encourage that, and, well, I'm grateful for it.

From Andrew, of the Wordplay newsletter: 

It’s hard to pin down exactly what an “optimistic” science fiction story is. Is it tech-positive, where people look at and imagine technology fixing everything? Or is it something where we just bury our heads in the sand and try to ignore our culpability in some of the bad things in the world? Is it literally just a story that doesn’t imagine the world as a dark and dreary place and looks at the better side of humanity? 

I’ve come to see this in a couple of different ways, because I think all apply. There’s certainly a regressive strain here that encompasses non-cynical books like The Martian. I see Weir as a reductive author. He has a worldview that really seeks to ignore some of the more troubling problems in the world, telling me a while back that he avoids politics because he doesn’t “like reading stories with a political message,” because he finds them preachy and that they mess with his ability to enjoy the story. That’s all well and good person to person, but I think it’s a pretty narrow-minded view of what fiction can offer to its readers, and it blunts the impact of what fiction can accomplish. 

I've been a fan of Andrew's reviews for a long time, and we almost (so close!) even worked together on a Thing. Here, he's setting the stage for Better Worlds, a new anthology of 'optimistic science fiction' from The Verge.

But enough about him.

I'm currently reading another 'optimistic' anthology for review, A People's Future of the United States - and, for that matter, I've just finished a distinctly non-optimistic one, This Dreaming IsleReview pending there, too.

Three unrelated thoughts on, or about, the three:

First, the call-and-response between the contemporary world (argh, the world is shit) and secondary world responses (here, escape to the better/worse). And perhaps 'escape' is the wrong word - as any pop psychologist will tell you, it isn't really 'escaping' if you're letting 'what you're escaping from' dictate your reaction.

Second, the pure marketing-ness of it all. Fiction has always been sold on emotion: you buy a book because of how it makes you feel. For these books, the emotional benefit is unsubtle. There's a difference between, say, selling a book that implies a particular emotion (a romance, a grimdark fantasy, a space opera, whatever) and selling a book that is, for all practical purposes, called "Feelings McFeelFace". That, in and of itself, begs questions about how product-sellers are starting to flog products based on that assumed desire for a missing emotional connection.

Third, of course, is the nationality of the books. Better Worlds and A People's Future are American. This Dreaming Isle is British. AfroSFv3 is pan-African. Across all four, the tone, approach, and emotional 'vibe' are all very different. 

Third, addendum: This also leads to a greater question about the role of national identity within SF/F. This is fiction that, more than any other category, takes place in non-national/non-real settings. Relatedly, I've noticed - from much recent Googling - that SF/F authors are shockingly unlikely to list their nation in their biographies.

I'm obviously joining two very distant dots here, but there's a tension between individuals within SF/F self-identifying in one way (generally 'martial art mastered', 'writing workshop attended', 'dissertation topic' and 'cat owner'), and the SF/F structures that identify them through nationality. That's a big molehill to make out of, say, a small segment of the anthology market, but don't forget things like rights are still negotiated on a national basis, and most contracts specify a 'home market'. I don't think this is a particularly problematic disconnect, but it is definitely a curious one. 

Which is a long way of saying, uh... what was my original point? Oh yes. Um. The Martian is, uh, I dunno? Never read it. Potatoes?

Saving the best for last. If you're not subscribed to Lisa Schmeiser's So What, Who Cares? that's good, because I'm pretty much blatantly ripping off her shtick and doing it much, much worse. Her newsletter is the highlight of my week, from the utterly genius lateral trend-spotting to the charming pop culture recs.

This past week's was particularly impressive, entitled "Whether Three Items Really Constitutes a Trend":

The Miss America mishegoss reminds me of how, a few weeks ago, everyone noticed that Victoria's Secret is still under the impression women are commodities to be gift-wrapped for consumption. There have since been the inevitable analyses pointing out that lingerie companies touting feel-good body positivity or inclusiveness aren't doing it because 2018 means the year of woke underwear. And it's good to remember that even if a marketing message is now aimed at making you like yourself, it still exists to sell you stuff. But a larger point remains: the type of womanhood Victoria's Secret sells is a lot like Miss America. It's about appearance over function, that appearance is meant to remind the woman that her value rests in how others regard her, and the aesthetics are carefully calibrated to make sure women are never threatening.

I don't really have any editorialising to add here. Except that - again - I think Schmeiser is strategic planning at its finest.

The best newsletters, I suppose, are the ones that feel like long, drawn-out conversations - but dialogues in which you're not required to be performative or, hell, even respond at all. Damien, Andrew, Lisa are all talking with me - not at me. They're being charismatic and passionate about what they do, in a way that invites me to listen. Yet there's not of the forced immediacy of Twitter, or the performative public-ness of a blog post. There's no pressure on them to entertain; no pressure on me to respond. Everyone wins.

Speaking of pressure to respond - what great newsletters should I be subscribing to in January?

Please share your favourites - be they sports, science, strategy or science fiction - and I'll pass them along. I'll share my complete list as well.

Get: Readers
To: Think my newsletter is (also) best in class
By: Association