Why Write?

The tough thing about writing fiction — one of the tough things, anyway — is that the events in a story or novel need to make some sort of sense. What sort of sense the events make will depend on the author’s views; Ayn Rand’s version of a world that makes sense is quite different from C. S. Lewis’s, and neither of their versions bears much resemblance to my own. What they have in common is that their fiction is, in each case, an attempt to convince readers that the messy and pointless real world has a hidden moral order.

Real life always escapes from the net of making sense, sometimes by ripping large holes in the net. In the last analysis, the task of the fiction writer is to gin up an imaginary world that, by being limited and having some sort of moral orientation, actually does make sense.

Fiction comforts us by allowing us to bask in the illusion that we live in a world that makes sense. Even as extreme an example as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland follows this template. At the end, Alice wakes up! The subtext of the story — and remember, Charles Dodgson was a clergyman — is that we can indulge in arbitrary flights of fancy, but that ultimately we will be brought back quite safely to a place that’s comfortingly familiar.

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Something Wicked This Way Comes

Every year the Unitarian Universalists hold a General Assembly, a grand conclave in which delegates from the congregations gather and do stuff. I’ve never been to a GA, so I have no idea what they do, but part of it involves voting on candidates for the Board of Trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).

At first blush, this will sound like an innocuous democratic process, but it’s not. First, there are rarely any candidates other than those put forward by the nominating committee, and the nominating committee is run by the current Board. It’s a circular process. Second, delegates are not always well informed, either about the candidates or about other issues on which they will be voting. Third, the items on which votes will be held are not generally discussed in the congregations that the delegates represent, so the delegates are often voting based on their own ideas, or half-formed impulses, rather than representing the views of their congregations.

This is all by way of background. I’m going somewhere. Hang with me.

This year, Jay Kiskel is running for the Board, but not as a nominee chosen by the nominating committee. He’s doing it on his own. As a result, there will be actual choices to be made among the candidates. The tricky bit is, how are delegates to be informed as to the various positions of the candidates for whom they will be voting?

Jay Kiskel and Frank Casper are the heads of an advocacy group called the Fifth Principle Project. The Fifth Principle of Unitarian Universalism is, “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” Jay and Frank’s book, Used to Be UU, is, among other things, a discussion of the anti-democratic drift of the UUA. (Full disclosure: I edited the book.)

In order to advance Jay’s candidacy, the reasons for which are explained in the book, the Fifth Principle Project applied for a “booth” at the 2021 GA. What a “booth” would be at a virtual General Assembly I have no idea, but it’s not cheap. They ponied up $1,200 for the booth.

This is where it gets hairy. The UUA appears now to be poised not to let them have a booth. The reasons given for this reluctance, as set forth in an email I’ll quote below, are transparently specious. What’s really going on is that the people who run the UUA are terrified of any sort of dissent. They have some well developed and elaborate ideas about how to steer Unitarian Universalism in a certain direction, and if you don’t agree with them they’re going to try to shut you up. Also, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to guess that they’re not happy to see Jay running for the Board.

Let’s take a close look at the email Frank Casper received from LaTonya Richardson, who identifies herself as the Director of the General Assembly & Conference Services.

Dear Frank,

Thanks for your application to reserve an exhibit booth at our virtual GA this year. The application has been placed on hold because our office is in receipt of three emails expressing concern about the presence of a Fifth Principle Project booth at GA.  Here’s a summary…

“Mr. Casper and Mr. Kiskel are bragging on their Fifth Principle Project website that they are going to have an exhibitor booth at the 2021 General Assembly. (see https://fifthprincipleproject.org/2021/03/10/updates-from-the-fifth-principle-project/) Given that the publication of their book is probably going to be a major part of that space, this makes me very uncomfortable. The idea that someone can get an exhibitor booth to promote said book seems very out of covenant to me. If their booth is approved, it would make me very uncomfortable and many other people as well.”

“I hope, as you are considering Fifth Principle Project’s application for an exhibitor booth, you will consider these concerns. I do not believe it is within the spirit of General Assembly or our Unitarian Universalism in general to allow people to be legitimized with exhibition hall space. Thank you in advance. Mr. Casper has a history of toxic behavior towards UUs in online spaces.”

“As a UU leader, I am concerned about the Fifth Principle Project. I’ve been observing and intervening on problematic activity on UU social media since ‘The Gadfly Papers’ was published. The online behavior Fifth Principle Project founder Frank Casper and other 5PP group members has been disconcerting, particularly how they relate to marginalized groups. I’m concerned to the point that I worry about how these folks might respond if they find out I am reaching out to you. I and others imagine this organization might be a disruptive presence at GA.”

Frank, similar concerns were raised during GA 2020 when GA attendees discovered that UUMAC (represented by Mr. Campbell and Mr. Lindrup) had reserved an exhibit booth and time slot on our GA Learning Stage. I said then, and it still holds true, that the UUA GA will not be complicit when our intended audience, registered attendees of General Assembly, perceive rhetoric to be deliberately antagonistic and harmful. We strive to make GA an accessible and inclusive virtual community, so providing anyone a platform to potentially disrupt the purpose of our gathering and cause harm is counter-productive.

We know from GA 2020 that members who support UUMUAC and the Fifth Principle project used both the GA app, chat rooms in the GA Participation Portal, and email to express their outrage and incite controversy. It was disruptive enough that the GA Care Team, comprised of Chaplains, Right Relationship volunteers, Chat Moderators, and others dealt with complaints and concerns about it. I’m curious what is different from last June? Also, what agreements might we put in place now to ensure that whatever content you all choose to share is done respectfully? What recourse do we have should either content and communications from this exhibit booth be perceived as declaring an assault on the UUA or GA stakeholders? How responsive are you all willing to be to concerns that your content and/or communications are causing harm?

I forwarded your booth request and the complaints we have received to the UUA Administration and will await feedback. They will follow-up with me in the coming weeks. Thank you for your patience. If you’d like a refund of the amount paid with your application, we can oblige.

This is a fascinating text. A number of points need to be made about it.

First, Richardson states that Frank and Jay’s application for a booth has been put on hold because of three emails. Three emails — imagine that! Second, the authors of the emails are anonymous. Either they’re not willing to stand up and be counted, or for some reason Richardson just plain doesn’t want anybody to know who they are.

Third, the word “bragging,” in the first message, is simply a snide attack. The announcement of the booth contained nothing that could remotely be described by an honest adult as bragging. Fourth, the first correspondent makes an unsupported guess about what will be done at the booth, without having consulted Frank or Jay to find out what their plans are. What we’re seeing here is preemptive discomfort.

The first correspondent’s stated concern is that if the booth is approved, it would make him or her, and an unnamed group of other people, “very uncomfortable.” This is raging safetyism. This correspondent explicitly holds that his or her personal discomfort is a valid reason for denying others the opportunity to present their ideas. Is this sort of childish whining what Unitarian Universalism has descended to?

The second correspondent asserts, bizarrely, that it is contrary to the spirit of UUism to “legitimize” people by allowing them booth space. As I said, I’ve never been to a GA, but I’ll bet groups like BLUU and DRUUM have booths. And of course that does legitimize them. So the problem here is that the author of this message wants to legitimize one group of advocates (of whom he or she most likely approves) but not to legitimize another group with whom he or she disagrees.

This is no more and no less than an attempt to silence people with whom the correspondent disagrees. It’s entirely contrary to the spirit of Unitarian Universalism, which historically has always placed a high value on the free exchange of ideas.

I haven’t followed what Frank Casper has said on social media, so I can’t comment on that directly. I’ll say only that in the absence of specifics, this accusation comes across more as slander (or as hurt feelings) than as a legitimate complaint. I haven’t met Frank, but I’ve been in Zoom meetings with him, and my impression of his personality is that at times he can be a bit abrasive. That being the case, what we have here is someone objecting to a UU organization having a booth at the GA because one of the people at the booth may be a bit abrasive. A complaint of that sort ought to be too petty to take seriously, or so one would think. Is attendance at the General Assembly to be limited strictly to people who are pleasant?

The third correspondent is explicitly worried that Jay and Frank are going to engage in some sort of vendetta against him or her for opposing their application for a booth. This is just plain weird. On the other hand, given the vociferous vendetta that hundreds of UU ministers have waged against Todd Eklof, this person may worry that he or she will be treated the way his or her friends have treated Reverend Eklof. So maybe it’s not as far-fetched a fear as I would imagine. Delusional, yes; paranoid, yes; but not far-fetched.

The concern about the booth being “a disruptive presence” is more of the same. Advocacy of ideas that these people disagree with is seen by them as disruptive. Rational discussion and even disagreement are evidently beyond their capacity.

Richardson then takes the position that the UUA doesn’t want to be complicit “when our intended audience, registered attendees of General Assembly, perceive rhetoric to be deliberately antagonistic and harmful.” This is postmodern safetyism in action: If attendees perceive a presentation to be harmful, then it’s automatically harmful, and has to be squashed. The idea that people’s perceptions might be biased or simply incorrect, that their emotional response might be misplaced, is not even open to discussion. And note the use of the pejorative term “rhetoric.” This embeds the idea that whatever Jay and Frank will be saying in their booth, it’s not honest, it’s “rhetoric.”

Richardson goes on to suggest (the suggestion is implicit but unmistakable) that she and the UUA want to exert prior restraint on what Jay and Frank might say at their booth. Based on her discomfort with an unrelated situation in a prior year, she wants assurances that the presentation by the Fifth Principle Project will be “respectful.” She is worried about an “assault.”

I’m tempted to say, “What the actual fuck is wrong with these people?” But we know what’s wrong with them. They’re part of the Woke Squad in the Holy Church of Anti-Racism. It’s a vital element of the creed of the Holy C.A.R. that members should never be confronted by ideas that would make them uncomfortable — especially if those ideas are presented by white men. You may think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. These are members of a supposedly spiritual organization, an organization that has long been known as the most liberal denomination in the Protestant religious community, and yet they view respectful dissent as “assault.”

And then, although the UUA has not yet officially made a decision, Richardson offers to give Frank back his $1,200. Does anybody think the decision is not a foregone conclusion?

I’m not in the inner circles of Unitarian Universalism, and I’m definitely not a person of faith. I’m just a writer. But I do believe that responsible adults do not respond to dissent in the cowardly and flagrantly dishonest way that LaTonya Richardson has done here. If this is spirituality, you can take your spirituality and shove it where the sun don’t shine.

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Magic 8-Ball

At the next couple of General Assemblies of the Unitarian Universalist denomination, a proposed Eighth Principle is going to be put forward and voted on. If the GA approves, it will be tacked on at the end of the Seven Principles. Unfortunately, it’s quite different in tone, structure, and intent from the existing Principles.

Here’s the proposed text: “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.

This seems fairly mild on the surface — but look closer. First, it’s a principle for congregations, not for individuals. This is a radical departure. Two of the existing Principles mention congregations, but in a different way: The 3rd principle mentions “encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations” and the 5th principle mentions “the democratic process within our congregations.” The proposed 8th principle asks congregations themselves “to affirm and promote” specific anti-racist actions. The actions are not named, but this Principle embodies the idea that congregations will take actions; and thus, that if they don’t they’re in violation of the Eighth Principle.

Second, this principle prescribes a specific method with which to journey “toward spiritual wholeness.” Nothing else in the seven Principles does that. The Third Principle mentions “spiritual growth,” but I can’t help thinking “wholeness” is different from “growth.” I know nothing at all about spirituality, but it seems to me that growth is an ongoing process that may lead in one direction or another. Wholeness, on the other hand, seems to be a rather monolithic goal. What’s worse, the implication (unstated) is that if you and your congregation aren’t “working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community,” you aren’t “journeying toward spiritual wholeness.”

Third, the terms “beloved community” and “accountably” are a deliberate step in the direction of group-think. If you disagree with what’s going on in the “beloved community,” you can expect to be held accountable.

Fourth, the proposed Eighth Principle embeds the assumption that there is racism “in ourselves and our institutions.” But what institutions are we talking about? Nobody would deny that there’s racism in the “justice” system in the U.S., but I don’t think that’s what the phrase “our institutions” is referring to. The term is being used, implicitly, to point at institutions (such as congregations) within UUism.

This isn’t just a slippery slope; it’s a precipice.

The Black Lives of UU (BLUU) organization explicitly supports the addition of this Principle. According to a website text, someone named Paula Jones “realized that a person can believe they are being a ‘good UU’ and following the 7 Principles without thinking about or dealing with racism and other oppressions at the systemic level. Evidence: most UU congregations are primarily European-American in membership, culture (especially music), and leadership, even when located near diverse communities. She realized that an 8th Principle was needed to correct this….”

This is bizarre. First, it’s a rather mechanistic idea about what the Principles are to be used for. The other Principles don’t address specific problems or propose specific solutions. Second, the “evidence” that is cited does not in any way support Jones’s “realization.” It’s entirely possible that there may be UU congregations that are entirely European-American in membership, enjoy nothing but Bach and Handel as their worship music, have a white minister, and are located near or within an inner-city ghetto — and yet everybody within those congregations is fully committed to thinking about racism and other oppressions! The “evidence” is tissue-thin propaganda, and that’s all it is.

The fact that the people who are advancing these ideas suffer from such basic conceptual distortions does not inspire much confidence.

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Facts & Feelings

This morning one of my Unitarian Universalist friends dropped a quote (from some unknown source) on her Facebook feed. On the surface, this quote seems to be a nice reminder that we ought to be aware of and considerate of other people’s feelings. But the subtext is not quite so nice. Here’s the quote:

When you debate a person about something that affects them more than it affects you, remember that it will take a much greater emotional toll on them than on you. For you it may feel like an academic exercise. For them, it feels like revealing their pain only to have you dismiss their experience and sometimes their humanity. The fact that you might remain more calm under these circumstances is a consequence of your privilege, not increased objectivity on your part. Stay humble.

I’m more than a bit skeptical about the phrase “and sometimes their humanity.” What does that mean? It seems to mean that if you disagree with someone, they may think that you think they’re sub-human. But am I responsible for the mistaken ideas of everybody around me? That’s too great a burden to expect anyone to bear. For one thing, it involves mind-reading. I’m also worried about “academic exercise.” The implication here seems to be that citing facts and being logical are an ivory-tower activity that is somehow irrelevant. I don’t buy it.

Another strange implication here is that the objective use of the intellect (in an “academic exercise”) automatically dismisses the experiences (and presumably the emotions) of the person with whom you’re discussing a topic. The implication is that one cannot possibly use one’s intellect and articulate one’s intellectual ideas while simultaneously accepting another person’s statement about their lived experience. In order to accept the other person’s statement, one must shut down one’s intellect. That’s what the quote implies.

I have a sort of friend (she unfriended me a couple of years ago, but we’ve known one another for many, many years) who suffers from this cognitive distortion. When she expresses an opinion — let’s say, about the existence of “God” — your only option is to agree with her. If you attempt to point out facts that are not consonant with her position, or even ask her to clarify her position, she interprets your comment as a personal attack. She once claimed that emotions were different from feelings. I asked her to define her terms. She not only refused to do so, she got angry at me for questioning her.

Now let’s talk about objectivity. If someone is experiencing strong emotions during a discussion, by definition they will find it difficult to be objective. That’s the difference between objectivity and subjectivity. For that reason, it’s simply true that someone who is emotionally unaffected will quite likely be more objective. That’s what the word “objective” means. It’s also the case that even someone who is quite calm can be suffering from all sorts of cognitive distortions, or from simple ignorance, so calmness does not necessarily imply correctness! But the remedy is not to tell the person to “stay humble.” The remedy is to use logic and evidence to point out where the person has lapsed into poor thinking.

The subtext of the message quoted above involves postmodernism. As I understand it, Critical Race Theory is rooted in postmodernism. (The book Cynical Theories discusses this in great detail. I recommend the book highly.) Postmodernism denies the existence of objective truth. In the postmodern view, the only reality is what each individual thinks it is. On that basis, if someone says they have been harmed, then ipso facto, they have been harmed. There is no objective test that can determine whether or not they were actually harmed. Their statement of their lived experience must be taken at face value.

Unless, of course, they’re white and male. If you’re a white male, your experience is dismissed, because it’s assumed that you’re coming from a place of privilege. This is how Critical Race Theory works.

We need to talk about “privilege.” The quote states that calmness “is a consequence of your privilege,” but that’s not necessarily the case at all. Your calmness may be a result of the fact that you have worked through some emotional issues that the other person hasn’t worked through for one reason or another. Though the word “white” is not used in the quote, the reference is quite clearly and specifically to white privilege. That is, we’re being advised that when a person of color (again, not identified as such, but that’s what the quote is talking about) reacts emotionally, you are remaining calm because you’re white. And that’s just plain old racism.

What if another person of color is the one who remains calm? Is that because of their privilege? Probably not. This is how slippery it gets when someone tries to advise white people while pretending that they’re not talking about race.

One other detail needs to be noted, I think: One can be very humble indeed and yet remain objective! The last two words there (“stay humble”) imply that if one were humble, one would not attempt to be objective. That is, objectivity is being confused (quite deliberately, I would guess) with arrogance. And that’s grotesque. As an intellectual proposition, it’s beneath contempt.

I suspect that many people are not equipped to see the subtext in a message of this sort. They will take it at face value, as a reminder to consider the feelings of other people. But in reality, it’s a message telling you to shut off your intellect. It’s straight out of 1984.

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Trouble in Paradise

I’m in receipt of an email from another in the small but passionate group of dissenters from what has become the prevailing orthodoxy in Unitarian Universalism. This individual has written a couple of pieces online, which I’ll link to below. He uses the byline “Veritas Curat” (that is, the truth cures).

And by the way, I use the term “orthodoxy” advisedly. What we’re seeing in the UU denomination is very definitely a swing in the direction of one-size-fits-all doctrine. Dissent is no longer welcome. Since I have no official position in the UU organization, I’m immune to the pressure to conform that is being wielded against ministers who dare to stray from the party line. Also, I’m such small fry that nobody cares what I think, write, or say.

I haven’t verified every detail in his two essays. In particular, I’m not familiar with what Rev. Southworth did or didn’t do. I haven’t heard that part of the story before. At a couple of spots, Veritas slides past points that I would have preferred to see articulated more fully. All the same, I feel these pieces are informative.

Certainly, nobody expected the Unitarian Inquisition, but there are grounds for using that as a metaphor (complete with the Monty Python photo) in The UU Inquisition. The UUMA response to Southworth’s letter, which is linked to in that piece, is a pathetic joke. Inter alia, the UUMA Board asserted, “The UUMA has processes and procedures for holding people accountable when harm is done.” And yet, for some reason the UUMA failed to adhere to its own processes and procedures, or anything like them, when the time came to censure and expel Todd Eklof. The tale of how that process unfolded is told in his upcoming book, The Gadfly Affair.

You’ll have to wait a month or two to read the gory details. Suffice it to say that in the end he was expelled for “failure to engage,” when in plain fact it was the UUMA that had failed to engage. Todd’s Good Officer, Rev. Rick Davis, sent the UUMA Board a list of 22 questions about their process. They refused to answer the questions. And then they accused him of failing to engage. The mind boggles.

The review by Veritas Curat of the book Centering quotes a number of passages in the book and asks pointed questions about them. Now that I’ve read the first part of the book, I think my reaction to it is a bit different from his. Some of the passages exhibit the kind of muddled thinking that is all too common in the UU community these days, but other passages are revealing and seem quite fair.

The important point, I think, is that the book isn’t intended to present a coherent diagnosis of the ills from which Unitarian Universalism allegedly suffers. It’s intended as a forum in which UU ministers of color can talk to one another and share their experiences. That’s an important thing to do, and it would be a mistake to censor the various authors’ opinions on the grounds that they lack balance or clarity.

The thing that worries me, as I sit here in my easy chair, is that while the UUMA has put its imprimatur on Centering, if a group of white UU ministers were to gather together a collection of essays in which they criticized the anti-racism efforts of the UUA and UUMA, the white ministers’ book would not be embraced or promoted by the UUMA. Quite the contrary! We’re still in a situation where the UU higher-ups are not interested in being even-handed or respecting divergence of opinion. And that’s a base-level problem.

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Is U or Ain’t U U?

Regular readers of this space will recall my posts, over the past couple of years, discussing a controversy that is roiling (in some small way) the Unitarian Universalist denomination. I’ve been a member of the local UU church for the past three or four years. I’ve been dreading the moment when members are asked to make financial pledges, because some portion of my contribution will be sent up the line to the UU Association, an organization that I cannot in good conscience continue to support.

Today I got an email from a member of the stewardship committee. Rather than rehash, I’m just going to paste my email reply into this blog post. Make of it what you will.

I’ve been pondering this stewardship business for months now. I’m still not certain what to do.

I love the people in the [local] congregation. I consider you all my friends! In addition, I’m aware that there is some very worthwhile community work being done by the social justice committee, and I’d like to support that (as well as the music program, obviously, which I did support as recently as last week). I’d like very much to continue to be part of the congregation.

However, I’m aware that a portion of the money that I contribute will be forwarded to the UUA. And in good conscience, I can’t consent to that. The UUA has turned into a heavily authoritarian organization that is not accountable either to individual UUs or to member congregations. There’s some very bad juju going on there.

In the past couple of months I’ve had the privilege of editing a couple of soon-to-be-released books on this topic. Jay Kiskel and Frank Casper’s book Used to Be UU should be available within a couple of days on Amazon. I also edited Todd Eklof’s next book, The Gadfly Affair. This is not due out for a month or two, partly because Todd doesn’t want to overshadow the book release by Jay and Frank.

In a nutshell, I am now very much a part of the dissident faction within Unitarian-Universalism. The way Todd has been treated by the UUA and the UUMA is appalling and shameful. Those organizations will get none of my money.

If there’s a way to shield my contribution from the UUA, then we should talk about it. But if the contribution goes into a general pool of funds a percentage of which is forwarded to the UUA based on our membership rolls, then it would be necessary for [the local congregation] to lie to the UUA by claiming one fewer member, and correspondingly less money, than we actually have. Or perhaps several fewer members and a lot less money, if some others feel as I do. I don’t know whether this is a practical option.

For that matter, [the local congregation] could resign from the UUA. I don’t expect that to happen, and I’m not sure it’s a good idea, because I imagine our membership may have some utility. I mention it as a possibility simply because I want to be logical.

I’m pretty sure that a few others will agree with me after reading these two books. The UUA benefits materially from the fact that ordinary UUs mostly don’t know what’s going on at the national level, or have succumbed to the idea that they need to engage in virtue signaling by going along with the program. I’m not at liberty to share the texts of the books prior to their release, but I can assure you that to the best of my knowledge and belief, both books are factual, and they paint the UUA and the UUMA in extraordinarily bleak terms.

I fully expect that when the books are released, they will be attacked. And I confidently predict that the attacks will be liberally (if you’ll forgive the term) laden with innuendo, deliberate misunderstandings, a general failure to engage with the content of the books, and perhaps a few outright lies. Those are the tactics the UUA and UUMA have demonstrated thus far.

I also have serious reservations about continuing to contribute to [our minister’s] salary. [She] signed the Open Letter denouncing Todd’s earlier book. Having done so, she is clearly in violation of her covenant with her fellow ministers through the UUMA (a fact that the UUMA itself would resolutely deny, but there it is). I can’t lay my hands on the text of that covenant at the moment, but part of what a UU minister promises is not to attack other ministers publicly without having first engaged in personal conversation with them. Needless to say, nothing of the sort happened before several hundred UU ministers affixed their names to the Open Letter. But rather than discipline them, the UUMA turned on a dime and attacked Todd.

The UUMA Guidelines say this: “The history and expectation of the Unitarian Universalist movement is that ministers are free to speak the truth as they understand it. The long standing tradition of freedom of the pulpit extends to ministers in all professional settings. This freedom applies to both spoken and written public statements.” This freedom to speak the truth is what Todd Eklof was exercising. It is for speaking the truth as he understands it that [our minister] participated in a very public attack on him — an attack that entirely failed to mention a single problem in the text of The Gadfly Papers, because, frankly, there was nothing wrong with the text. The signatories of the Open Letter, all of them UU ministers, were in essence no better than a lynch mob, and [our minister] joined the mob.

I don’t have a solution to the stewardship problem, but I can offer a compromise. If [our minister] will have her name removed from the Open Letter and preach a sermon in which she apologizes for attacking Todd Eklof, a fellow UU minister, and acknowledges that in doing so she has violated her ministerial covenant, then I will agree to continue to contribute to her salary.

I don’t expect that she would ever consider doing anything of the sort, but I offer this as a possible way forward.

Historically, Unitarianism has supported both the individual conscience (which is what I am exercising here) and the freedom of the pulpit (which Todd Eklof has been repeatedly and slanderously attacked for exercising — attacked by individuals and groups within the UUA). These traditions are now under concerted attack by the leadership of our own denomination. Somebody has to stand up to them, and I’m proud to help with that.

I hope you understand where I’m coming from. I’d be happy to address your questions and concerns, or anybody else’s, with regard to this. And to the extent that I can continue to support the local congregation without supporting or countenancing the authoritarian cabal within the UUA, I will be happy to do so!

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How Is That Supposed to Work?

The lovely thing about fantasy is that you can just have the wizard cast a spell that causes the king to go mad. There’s no need to explain how the spell works, because this is fantasy! To be sure, modern fantasy benefits from some consideration of the type of magic available to the wizards — herb magic, incantations, amulets, unsavory negotiations with beings whose stench is mephitic, whatever. But if the author says the spell does that, then by golly that’s what it does.

The author of science fiction faces a much more difficult challenge. Failure to explain departures from the expected in terms that make sense to the reader will weaken and can ultimately destroy the narrative. In other words, you got to get the science right! Sadly, in most of the SF I’ve been reading lately, that doesn’t happen. Either the authors don’t care, or (more likely) they’re aware that if they try to get the science right, their story will fall apart.

I’ve been reading Wanderers, a massive (as in, well over 200,000 words) SF drama by Chuck Wendig. I’m more than 3/4 of the way through it, but I’m not sure I’m going to bother finishing it. The implausibilities have mounted up, and anyway the ending is now guessable. There will be a battle. Some of the good guys will die, but the bad guys will be defeated. The plot is tension-filled, but it’s predictable.

In the opening, a 15-year-old girl suddenly walks away from her family farm in rural Pennsylvania. Her older sister runs after her. The girl, Nessie, is walking imperturbably down the road, rather like a zombie. Her sister asks her what she’s going, tries to reason with her, but there’s no response. Nessie just keeps on walking. That’s a good opener. It grabs your attention.

Over the next few hours Nessie is joined by a few more walkers, all of them in this trance-like state. Over the following days, the throng of walkers grows bit by bit. Their distraught and bewildered family members are tagging along, some on foot, some in vehicles. The procession proceeds eastward. Wendig never quite says the walkers don’t even stop at night, but that’s the implication. Explicitly, they don’t eat, they don’t drink water, they don’t piss or shit, they don’t speak or show facial expressions. They just walk.

Also, they can’t be stopped. If you try to stop a walker, he literally explodes — bits of bone flying everywhere. And then the remains are stolen from the morgue by mysterious operatives before the tissues can be analyzed. Ooh, ominous!

The CDC gets involved. As the procession swells to hundreds of walkers, there’s a confrontation between the CDC and Homeland Security. The walkers pay no attention; they just keep right on walking. Across Indiana, across Illinois, across Nebraska and Montana….

Wendig’s main focus, during this extended exodus, is on the people around the walkers — the older sister, the people from the CDC, an aging rock star, an ex-policewoman, a well-meaning but co-opted Christian minister. Their lives are explored in great detail. This is probably essential, because the science fiction premise itself is, until much later in the book, basically devoid of interest or tension. The walkers just keep on walking.

Okay, you get the idea. Now for some spoilers. The CDC people are also tracking the opening stages of a pandemic that makes Covid look like tiddlywinks. (And the book was published in 2019, before Covid.) A bat fungus infects humans. It develops slowly, so people spread it for a month or two without knowing they have it. It’s 100% fatal, and there is no cure. Civilization will very shortly be coming to a messy end.

But there’s this AI, you see, called Black Swan (or BS for short, though of course that’s my abbreviation, not Wendig’s). Black Swan has deliberately implanted a bunch of healthy people with nano machines, turning them into walkers. The nanos also make them immune to the fungus. (Why Black Swan couldn’t have designed some nanos that would confer immunity without turning people into zombie walkers — let’s not ask.) They’re walking to a safe place, an isolated location in Colorado, where they will be the future of the human race. Black Swan knows that this move is going to be required, because it’s a quantum computing device, you see. It has been receiving messages from its own future self telling it about the dire future of the bat fungus plague.

At first blush this seems a very reasonable premise for a story. And it’s certainly dramatic! There’s a tornado, attacks by white supremacist snipers, some love interest (not all of it heterosexual) — we’ve got an epic page-turner here, folks!

Except, well, those implausibilities keep piling up. First and foremost, the route taken by the walkers, from Pennsylvania across to Washington State, down through California, and back through Arizona and Utah, is absurd. It’s a 1,500 mile detour. Why not just go straight from Pennsylvania to Colorado? My guess is, the author added the detour in order to give the story more weeks in which to unfold. There’s no visible reason for it within the story.

In fact, there’s no reason for the grand procession of walkers at all. Black Swan could easily have gathered people from hither and yon and sent them directly to Colorado in small groups. That would have been the sensible way to do it. But then there would have been no story.

The walkers’ metabolisms sustain them for a couple of months without food or drink. They are quite evidently using their leg muscles, so energy is being expended. Their hearts are still beating. Late in the book we’re told something about the nano machines inside them having “nano batteries.” As if that explained anything. If nothing else, the homeostasis of human metabolism requires that one sweat to remove excess heat, which means one needs to ingest water from time to time. Whatever else the nano machines may have in the way of magical resources, they’re not carrying tiny canteens of water.

When a few of the walkers are killed by the white supremacist snipers, their nano machines spontaneously leave their bodies and instantly enter the bodies of a few of the family members who are walking along with them. Instantly, those other people become walkers. Nano machines are just big molecules, folks. Molecules don’t enter your body by magic, and they don’t travel up to your brain and turn you into a zombie in an error-free manner, instantaneously. Can’t happen.

Also, nano machines are not smart. They’re just big molecules. Black Swan is communicating with them directly, you see, monitoring their activities and, as it turns out, allowing the walkers to hang out in a virtual reality it has constructed. Using, uhh, radio? Don’t ask.

I could go on, but I’ll leave you with this. As civilization implodes, millions of fungus-infected people are going insane, killing one another in the streets, car crashes galore, you get the picture. The walkers keep on walking, and their ragtag band of followers, which includes more than a few RVs, creeps right along beside them. The thing is, the RVs never seem to run out of gas. Gas pumps these days don’t work, you know, unless there’s electrical power and unless the credit card machinery can talk to the internet, but somehow the RVs never run out of gas. The followers are crossing the Mojave Desert, eating corn chips because there’s nothing else left in the abandoned supermarkets, and they never run out of gas.

Dragons never run out of gas, but you don’t need to explain it. If you’re writing science fiction, though, you need to think about this stuff. I’ll go along with a quantum computer that gets messages from its future self. Sure, why not? But RVs that run without gas or charging stations? People who can walk 4,000 miles without a sip of water? No. Just no.

Chuck Wendig’s career evidently started in the comic book industry. It shows.

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Do You Trust the Writer?

I’ve been reading a few cozy mysteries. Or trying to. I have this half-finished manuscript, you see. But I’m not ready to talk about that. The cozy sub-genre is far more varied than one might, at the outset, imagine. There are historical cozies, cozies with magic, whimsical cozies and cozies of great seriousness, cozies with sleuths of various ages and sexes — they’re not all 30-something women. What has engaged my attention, though, has less to do with the variety of material, though that’s interesting, than with the variability of the narration itself.

Some cozy writers write very well. Others write very badly. By “badly,” I mean that the writer’s narrative voice cannot be trusted. The writer aims at a certain effect, and misses — or perhaps the writer aims at the wrong effect. It may or may not be the case that the writers who adhere most closely to the formula are also, by and large, using an inferior narrative voice. That’s my first impression, but I haven’t done a statistical analysis. I just want to think out loud for a moment or two about what makes the writer’s voice trustworthy.

It has to do with the details of the prose. What’s in the sentences and paragraphs.

I’ve just now finished reading The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley. A careful analysis of this text would suggest that it ought to be a failure — and yet it’s a success. (Artistically, that is. It was also a commercial success, but I’m not talking about that.) Bradley’s amateur sleuth is an 11-year-old girl, but she’s a very, very unlikely girl. Not because she knows an enormous amount about chemical compounds, though that’s unlikely enough. No, the problem is that her first-person narration is chockablock with cultural references that no 11-year-old girl whose nose is buried in a chemistry textbook could possibly know. The narrative voice, that is, is not the voice of Flavia de Luce, age 11; it’s the voice of Alan Bradley, age 70.

And yet it works. It works because Bradley is a good writer. You can trust him. Here’s a quick sample, drawn from a page at random. Flavia is sneaking around in a police station:

I slid my feet slowly one in front of the other, like some sensuous señorita doing the tango, and stopped abruptly at the door. From where I stood, I could see only one corner of the sergeant’s desk outside in the hallway and, mercifully, there was no official elbow resting upon it.

There’s nothing remarkable about this passage, and in fact the word “abruptly” is probably not needed. But the official elbow? That’s good writing. And Bradley knows exactly what is within Flavia’s field of view and how she’s moving her feet. It’s entirely concrete. The reader is embedded fully in the scene.

Let’s contrast that bit with this slightly longer excerpt from Joanne Fluke’s Banana Cream Pie Murder. The sleuth’s mother has just heard screams and gunshots in the apartment below hers and has ventured downstairs to investigate. At first she sees nothing amiss, but then…:

She rounded the corner of the couch and stopped, reaching out to steady herself as she saw a sight that she knew would haunt her dreams for years to come. Tori was sprawled on the rug, a sticky red stain on one of the beautiful silk caftans she wore on evenings that she worked at home.

The stain on the caftan glistened in the light from the tiny bulbs in the ceiling. Delores shuddered as she saw the crystal champagne flute tipped on its side on the floor, its expensive contents now permanently embedded in the plush white fibers. Thank goodness the blood hadn’t gotten on the carpet! That could have permanently ruined it. She’d have to give Tori the name of a good carpet cleaning firm so that they could remove the champagne stain.

“Ohhhh!” Delores gave a cry that ended in a sob. Tori wouldn’t need the name of a carpet cleaner. Tori would never need anything again. Tori was dead! Her friend was dead!

Tears began to fall from her eyes, but Delores couldn’t seem to look away.

The problems with this passage are not difficult to discern. First, the blood has not had time to stain anything. The gunshots were only a couple of minutes earlier. The blood is still fully liquid, so “stain” is the wrong word. Also, in order to sense that it’s sticky, the viewpoint character would have to touch it. But those are mere details. More to the point, Fluke has attempted to telegraph the impact of the scene by having Delores immediately reflect on what she will be dreaming about in the distant future. This just doesn’t work as a way of bringing the emotional impact home. An hour later she may reflect on that; she won’t be doing it at this moment. The writer has yanked the reader straight out of the scene!

We then get an aside about Tori’s customary attire. This is the cozy author shoehorning into the scene a bit about clothing, which cozy readers may want to know, but it’s a distraction here. Then a random bit about the ceiling light fixtures. Then Delores shudders, not because she’s looking at the blood or at the face of a dead woman but because she’s looking at a champagne flute and being aware that the champagne spilled from it is expensive, not the cheap stuff. Then the bit about carpet cleaning. That’s four irrelevancies in a row, plus the viewpoint character reacting to the wrong thing, and this in what is likely the most dramatic scene in the whole book.

To cap it all off, “Tears began to fall from her eyes.” Well, where else would they fall from? And the reader can be trusted to assume that the tears were just beginning, so “began to” is irrelevant. Anyway, tears don’t fall from your eyes, not unless you’re bending well forward, and probably not even then. They run down your cheeks. The sentence is awkward, and it’s a cliché.

To write a scene well, you need to put yourself in the mind of your viewpoint character. You need to see and feel exactly what the character is seeing and feeling at that moment. And then you need to choose the most relevant details and put them in the proper order, taking care to use words that are appropriate and, if possible, fresh.

I wouldn’t call Alan Bradley a fine writer. The chapters in which Flavia’s father narrates an essential back-story at great length are flatly unbelievable, both because her father is a recluse who barely speaks a word to his daughters and because the conversation is taking place in a cell in the police station. But in the end that doesn’t matter, because Bradley’s writing is both crisp and fun to read.

Fluke, on the other hand … in the very first sentence of chapter 2, a mere eight pages into the novel, we have the third mention of a glass of champagne. (Delores was about to break out her own bubbly when she heard the shots being fired downstairs.) I don’t think this is sloppy writing; I think Fluke intended to produce a shallow, irrelevant effect by invoking champagne repeatedly. Considered on its own terms, the effect is a success, but it’s cheap.

Why would a reader who cares about good writing read further?

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The Trouble with Trumpets

We’d all like to attract more attention to our published works. Some writers are tireless self-promoters, but I’m not one of them. I do a few things; I have a blog, for instance. (And if you’re reading this, you REALLY SHOULD BUY MY BOOKS!!! See how effective that is? Oh, did I say “effective”? I meant embarrassing.)

Last week, on one of the Facebook writers’ groups where I hang out, a young author of a soon-to-be-published mystery novel announced that she would be hosting a co-op promotional event. In such an event, eight or ten writers of similar novels all participate and invite their fans to check out the event. The idea is, the fans of eight or ten other authors will encounter you and your book, some of them will buy and read it, your word of mouth will improve, and so forth.

I didn’t bother to mention to her that I have no detectable fan base. I just said sure, that sounds like fun.

The more I thought about it, the less fun it sounded like. Setting up a video shoot here at home, blathering for 20 or 30 minutes about my book, then editing the video, then dealing with the assorted technical challenges that might arise in trying to get the video uploaded into the event … not really.

Looking for a graceful way out, and rather confident that one was close at hand, I asked her for a list of the other participants. Then I jetted over to Amazon and used the Look Inside to see who I would be rubbing virtual shoulders with. Hoo, boy. What a mess of turkeys! I had no trouble explaining to her (not using the word “turkeys”) that I was not comfortable sharing a podium with these other authors. I assured her that her own work is stellar compared to theirs, and that’s more or less true, though perhaps not quite as unalloyed a compliment as I allowed her to think.

It’s not easy being a snob.

You can learn a great deal about the quality of a writer’s work from reading the first few paragraphs of their novel. I’m not going to name names, but perhaps a few details, quoted purely for illustrative purposes, wouldn’t be out of line.

One of the authors started straight off by dumping a bunch of information into his opening paragraphs. The very first sentence skids off, after a pointless question from the lead character, into a mention that the office wherein the scene takes place is “roughly two miles below ground in the super high security sub-sub basement section of Area 51, hidden beneath the desert facility at Groom Lake in Nevada.” The very first sentence, I kid you not. The setting is the cliché of the century (that is, last century, not this one). And yes, one of the main characters is an alien — an alien private eye who dresses and decorates his office “Humphrey Bogart style.” Some people may find this kind of mash-up charming. Plainly the author hopes they will. But serious fiction it ain’t, and a well structured narrative it also ain’t.

Here’s another lead. Just to emphasize, this is the very first thing the reader encounters when opening the novel. Top of page 1: “There is something you should know about me right from the start; I am a perfectionist. A lot of people would say that is sometimes a bad thing and they would be wrong. If you are not in search of perfection, then you are settling for the mediocre, and that my friend, is always a bad thing.”

Doesn’t that just draw you in? Doesn’t it just whisper seductively, “You’re about to be immersed in a wonderful story”? Well, no, I don’t think it quite achieves that. Note also the missing comma before “my friend.” That’s not an optional comma; it’s required. Also, the second sentence is a run-on. Here we have a perfectionist who fails to grasp the minutiae of English punctuation. What is one to say?

Here’s a third opener. I want to make it clear that I have not diddled with the punctuation. This is exactly what the author published: “It was a rainy Saturday afternoon; I was sitting at the window while my two young children. Bram who is 13 years old and Seth who is 10 years old. They were playing on the carpet with their toys. I turned to look at my children as the rain trickled on the windowpane.” And so on. Later in the paragraph the author starts drifting back and forth between past tense and present tense, a common problem among the terminally inept, but that dangling clause at the end of the first sentence and the sentence fragment that follows it are stunning. “I turned to look” is filtering, and the verb “trickled” is being used wrongly. “Trickled down” would be fine, but “trickled on” is a grammatical error.

The lesson here, for aspiring writers — well, maybe there are two or three lessons.

First, none of us is as good as we think we are. That’s true of me too, I’m sure. We ought, one and all, to be wise enough and humble enough to check in with others whose skills we respect and take their comments to heart. Plainly, none of these authors thought it necessary to do that. Or maybe, as difficult as it is to conceive, they did. Maybe those whose skills they respect … no, let’s not even try to imagine that.

Second, self-indulgence in fiction writing is almost always a bad thing. The reader wants to read something that’s actually good. The reader does not want to watch you show off, not unless you’re Terry Pratchett. And you aren’t.

Third, shit seeks its own level. If you aspire to some sort of seriousness or success as an author of fiction, you would be well advised to check who you’re associating with. Inviting yourself into a room full of clowns is not going to help you find the kind of readers you’re hoping to find, not unless you’re one of the clowns. If that’s you, then fine: Send in the clowns.

This kind of writing is why I detest NaNoWriMo, by the way. There are enough awful novels in the world. We do not need to encourage people to write any more of them. If you’re a real writer — if you have any hope of ever becoming a real writer — you will not wait until November to start working on your novel, nor will you expect that you’ll be able to finish it in a month. I don’t know if any of the authors I’ve quoted above is a NaNoWriMo alumnx, but I can hardly imagine that their work is either better or worse than what arises from the ooze of NaNoWriMo and staggers forth to wreak mayhem on the unsuspecting peasants. Please, people — have a little self-respect. Stop writing!

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Relatables

Last night I read the opening chapters of a novel by an aspiring local writer. There were lots of problems; reading it and taking notes was a sad process. I don’t want to go into every detail of what I found wanting, but I do think other writers may benefit from pondering one or two of my observations.

The lead character was not a pleasant person. She was hostile and suspicious toward her friends. In a word, she was not relatable. There was little or nothing in her that would encourage a reader to want to hang out inside her head for 100,000 words.

A lead character who is too good would also be a bad choice, of course. We want the lead to be flawed — perhaps determined to overcome those bad habits, or perhaps quite stubbornly clinging to them. But along with the bad stuff, we need to find things in the character that we can admire or identify with. We want to be rooting for the character. As readers, we’re in the cheering section.

The problem with this particular lead character was that there was nothing positive in her to counterbalance the negativity. She was just annoying and unpleasant.

The author also has a tendency to withhold crucial bits of information for a couple of paragraphs, or for several pages. Something happened at the picnic, but what? Who is that person the lead character has just spotted across the room at the restaurant, the one the author is referring to as a “figure” in order to keep you guessing even whether it’s a man or a woman? The author may be under the impression that this encourages the reader to keep reading in order to find out — but in fact it’s what we do know that will keep us reading. If we know the person across the room is a hated rival (as in this case), we’ll want to keep reading in order to learn about the encounter between the lead and the rival. Blowing smoke in order to hide basic information is not a good technique.

At the moment I’m struggling with how frank to be with this writer. It would be all too easy to rip the manuscript to bloody tatters, but I’m pretty sure that would be a bad thing to do. As a matter of simple human decency I’d like to offer comments that might help the writer improve.

On the other hand, there are so very many bad writers cranking out garbage — and putting it up on Amazon, and tirelessly promoting it. The world does not need to be drowning in swill. Maybe it would be a public service to discourage amateurs from writing. And maybe it would be merciful to the writer herself. Take up gardening. Your chances of growing a nice healthy bush are much, much higher than your chances of writing a good novel.

This is one of the hazards of being a professional editor. I do in fact know what’s good, and what’s not. It’s not a he-said, she-said thing. It’s not a matter of opinion. When it’s crap, it’s crap.

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