Community, Responsibility, and Censorship

Online communities are here to stay—for which I’m profoundly grateful because I’ve made some wonderful friends, as a result. If it weren’t for online communities, after all, I’d never have found all of you. So while I don’t want to be all “gee-whiz! Teh interweb is sooo cool!” I honestly do marvel at the way we can reach each other, and converse; my own world has broadened and expanded beyond anything I could have imagined, as a result of this technology. The way online communities function is a particular interest of mine, now more than ever before.

I’ve blogged for a few years, and generally try to stay out of the various kerfuffles that crop up in the blogosphere now and again—but there’s a very optimistic and helpful IT blog I regularly read, Kathy Sierra’s Creating Passionate Users, and last week, Ms. Sierra wrote: “As I type this, I am supposed to be in San Diego, delivering a workshop at the ETech conference. But I’m not. I’m at home, with the doors locked, terrified. For the last four weeks, I’ve been getting death threat comments on this blog. But that’s not what pushed me over the edge. What finally did it was some disturbing threats of violence and sex posted on two other blogs . . .”

The story has continued, and there’s apparently been some resolution between the involved parties.

What I want to talk about are these key bits from the Kathy Sierra/Chris Locke joint statement posted April 2nd.


KS: “We’ve become so desensitized to vile comments on the net that many people can’t comprehend why I would feel threatened. But if we dismiss every cruel, vile, sexually threatening comment as simply the work of an anonymous troll, we will no longer be able to recognize a real threat. Are we willing to stake our mother/sister/daughter’s life on a sexually and physically threatening photo or comment, simply because it appeared on the internet and therefore must be harmless?

“That said, Chris and I are in complete agreement that it would be tragic if this incident were used as a weapon by those who would limit free and open exchange. My desire is for much more open debate on this issue, not legislated limits.”


CL: “. . . This issue should be explored and discussed, not swept under the rug, not rationalized away. At the same time, we need to look closely and carefully at the implications for free speech. The First Amendment allows and protects language that many find noxious. But there are forces in the world at present — not least in the US — that would leap at any opportunity to limit speech or even abolish certain forms of it. Crucial as is the current debate about hate speech directed at women, it would be tragic if this incident were used as a weapon by those who would limit free and open exchange.”


I very much believe that the way we all think about shaping the culture and standards of our individual online communities (as administrators, certainly, but even more so as users) we contribute to the overall social culture of the internet–because internet communities are composed of flesh and blood people, like any other community. The end result of improving the culture of our individual online communities is that we build good habits, and improve our offline world.

To effectively accomplish this, though, communities simply must learn from and adapt to the sometimes problematic nature of anonymous and instantaneous communication. It’s still a bit like the wild, wild west on the web, in many places. The problem of where free speech ends and censorship begins will be an ongoing discussion for years. At least, I very much hope so. The idea needs and deserves to be discussed continuously by people who deal with words and ideas on a regular basis.

Our individual communities must have agreed-upon standards so that the resulting gestalt of the internet will gradually begin to reflect that more individualized culture of responsibility. It seems rather overwhelming, if you look at any statistics at all about how fast new blogs, email lists, and message boards are popping up.

The balance between anonymity, free speech, community standards, and the open exchange of ideas can sometimes be both tricky and delicate; but this is terribly important stuff. If those of us who traffic in words and ideas don’t involve ourselves in the discussion, someone else most assuredly will be making decisions on our behalf.

We do all have our trolls. I’ve written here about this issue with regard to my own blog, before. There’s something that happens to people, sometimes, when they feel safely anonymous and very angry at the same time—they go right off into the stratosphere, foaming at the mouth. There are also people with access to the web who are simply unbalanced.

So how do we find a balance? I mostly think sane and good people have to speak up, when things get acrimonious in a comment string. I think we have to self-police. Also, it means that we must take responsibility for our own words wherever we are on the web. And stop excusing those who don’t or won’t. I think, when someone says something that’s clearly horrible and inflammatory, we stuff ’em in a box. Embarrass them. Shame them into either adhering to community standards, otherwise exile them by deletion and/or blocking.

And when someone says something actually egregious and illegal, we cannot dismiss it with, “Well, it’s the internet. People talk trash. It doesn’t mean anything.” Because words do have meaning.

It means we must continue to write hard. Write true. And write on. We are shaping our communities, by doing so, and shaping our world—and you all have my profound thank-you for being the people you are, and shaping this community into such a very remarkable and wonderful place.




We’re on an indefinite hiatus, folks. I’ve changed the auto-response to answer emails, to that effect. We’re releasing any manuscripts not already under contract and paid for. Manuscripts that are both contracted and paid for, we’re retaining the rights to post these stories, but waiving the exclusivity clause—so writers can put those stories back into submission.

Thanks for your patience.


Terrific News!

Sherwood Smith has agreed to guest-edit a special themed issue of Coyote Wild, designed around YA (young adult) Heroic Fantasy. We’re planning to solicit some stories by invitation, but we’ll certainly consider unsolicited submissions for the issue, as well—if you’ve got something you’d like us to consider, just submit through the regular channels (found under the link to Guidelines, in the sidebar) and please include YA Edition in the subject line of the email.

I’ll keep you updated with the details, as we hammer them out. In the meantime, three cheers for Sherwood!

Here’s a link to her website, and another link to her bibliography just in case you’ve not read them all, yet.

In the meantime, perhaps we can coax her to talk a bit about what she thinks about heroic fantasy, young adult lit, and what she expects from that kind of a story.

Aristotelian Squick and Squee, Part II

To recap Part I, where we began talking about Aristotle‘s theoretical take on fanfic:

Squick and squee are really cool words!  (I don’t entirely understand them, yet—for instance, are there gradations of squickedness, or is it an absolute?)

Ellen Fremedon still hasn’t written that essay.  It’s curling season, I’m given to understand, which means she’s gallivanting about the countryside sweeping ice and zooming big rocks-with-handles around trying to hit the other guy’s big rocks-with-handles.

—Aristotle discussed the ideas expressed by squick and squee (but without the part about curling) in <cite>The Poetics</cite> where he said some interesting and provocative things that <em>still </em>influence how we think about art, theater, music, and writing.


There are a couple of ideas we touched on in the beginning that now we need to identify and specifically name, for the sake of this conversation—catharsis and  mimesis.

I’m not going to try to nail down single-line definitions of these concepts, since any good dictionary will do that in fairly functional fashion.  But they are ideas to keep in mind as we roar onward, wind in our hair, to talk about Aristotle and squeeeeeee!

Also, please keep in mind that where Aristotle uses “poet” I’m perfectly comfortable swapping it out for the word “writer.”


What separates a poet from someone who writes in verse towards other ends is sort of The Big Question, to Aristotle, in many ways. It’s the “what is art” question:


Even when a treatise on medicine or natural science is brought out in verse, the name of poet is by custom given to the author; and yet Homer and Empedocles have nothing in common but the meter, so that it would be right to call the one poet, the other physicist rather than poet. On the same principle, even if a writer in his poetic imitation were to combine all meters, as Chaeremon did in his Centaur, which is a medley composed of meters of all kinds, we should bring him too under the general term poet. (Poetics I—about paragraph 5, depending on your translation).

So there’s the question begged, really, right? Even if the technique is not pure nor perfect, sometimes it’s art anyway. And even if the technique is both pure and perfect, sometimes it’s still not art.

So, for example, The Da Vinci Code can be said to have more in common with the Seattle phonebook than with . . . Well, no.  Maybe I don’t want to go there, after all.

What’s the difference between a limerick and a poem?  Because there does indeed seem to be a difference. Similarly, there’s a difference between the story you tell your spouse about your awful day, and a story told to transport a reader into another time and place.

But if poetry is something greater than technique, and greater than imitation, what exactly is it? Even if we stipulate this as true (which is a bit of a leap) I don’t know as there are any completely satisfactory answers for that question, mind you—and Aristotle doesn’t seem that sure, frankly, either. Though he does offer some ideas:


It is, moreover, evident from what has been said, that it is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen—what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a species of history, with meter no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular. By the universal I mean how a person of a certain type on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity; and it is this universality at which poetry aims in the names she attaches to the personages. (IX)

So logic, consistency, and (at least some) predictability are a Big Deal, because that’s how the audience can engage with the work. And it’s important that the audience can recognize what’s going on, at least unconsciously, because otherwise it’s no longer an imitation of something real. If it’s not about something real, then it’s something else, for Aristotle, and not poetry.

As a reader-participant-audience member, we have to be able to recognize what’s happening and understand not only the events, but the implications.

Aristotle gets a little weird when he starts making value judgments about superior and inferior ways and means of conveying this “imitation.” He gets even weirder when he wants to break poetry down into its smallest component parts—letters—and somehow find art and truth and beauty inside, like a mechanic looking under a hood. He gets whacked on quite a lot for this—it’s worth pointing out, though, that classical Greek is particulate, the words, parsable by letter the Greek alphabet itself conveys ideas by the very shape of the letters:

Image comparing Roman and Greek letters

In my admittedly modern reading of Aristotelian concepts, rather that advocating a strictly structural approach to diagnosing poetry,  he’s advocating excruciating command and control of language.  That is, Aristotle thinks it’s really important to figure out how to do this ambitious thing—convey truth—deliberately and carefully, for best effect.

Structure matters.  Each word must be precisely the right word, and the arrangement of the elements must draw the audience in and hold us throughout, eventually bringing us to a place of resolution and satisfaction.  Therein lies a key difference between:

There was an Old Man of Kilkenny,
Who never had more than a penny;
He spent all that money,
In onions and honey,
That wayward Old Man of Kilkenny.
Edward Lear


IT is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
“By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?

“The Bridegroom’s doors are opened wide,
And I am next of kin;
The guests are met, the feast is set:
May’st hear the merry din.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

So Aristotle is pretty clearly onto something real when he talks about catharsis—even though the word itself isn’t present in The Poetics:


Fear and pity may be aroused by spectacular means; but they may also<br />result from the inner structure of the piece, which is the better way, and indicates a superior poet. For the plot ought to be so constructed that, even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes Place. This is the impression we should receive from hearing the story of the Oedipus. But to produce this effect by the mere spectacle is a less artistic method, and dependent on extraneous aids. Those who employ spectacular means to create a sense not of the terrible but only of the monstrous, are strangers to the purpose of Tragedy; for we must not demand of Tragedy any and every kind of pleasure, but only that which is proper to it. And since the pleasure which the poet should afford is that which comes from pity and fear through imitation, it is evident that this quality must be impressed upon the incidents.

We might say, now, “you gotta get the audience where they live.” Which is as true of Stephen King as it was of Homer or Sophocles. That is, for a piece to work, it has to find that universal human truth that sets up a sympathetic resonance between poet and audience, so that the piece forces the listener or reader to feel something real, or the memory/shadow of something real. This is where the magic happens, and suddenly there’s something happening that transcends all the fine points of plot structure, diction, characterization, and unity.

Aristotle talked about catharsis in terms of music, in Politics, so we know he thought about it.  The etymology of the word says a lot about how he thinks this all works:

catharsis from Gk. katharsis “purging, cleansing,” from kathairein “to purify, purge,” from katharsos “pure.

From a decent essay about the Poetics:


The word catharsis drops out of the Poetics because the word wonder, to rhaumaston, replaces it, first in chapter 9, where Aristotle argues that pity and fear arise most of all where wonder does, and finally in chapters 24 and 25, where he singles out wonder as the aim of the poetic art itself, into which the aim of tragedy in particular merges. Ask yourself how you feel at the end of a tragedy. You have witnessed horrible things and felt painful feelings, but the mark of tragedy is that it brings you out the other side. Aristotle’s use of the word catharsis is not a technical reference to purgation or purification but a beautiful metaphor for the peculiar tragic pleasure, the feeling of being washed or cleansed.

This section of the Poetics is particularly relevant in terms of squick and squee buttons. In fiction, for instance, a successful piece of writing can find your squick button and make you like it—because it’s ultimately about human truth: we’re attracted and repelled by the blood mingled with rain on the pavement and the flashing lights from the emergency vehicles, because “oh my god that could be me…” but then, to push it even a step further, “and what is that thing crouched in the driver’s seat . . ? And is it eating . . . ohmygod it is!”

That’s the “pity and fear” part of the reader/writer exchange—empathy and identification.

When a written work gives that to us, it’s enormously gratifying. We can try out these emotions in a safe context, and we understand ourselves and the world all the better for it

Let’s return to this quote from  The Poetics:

Poetry in general seems to have sprung from two causes, each of them lying deep in our nature. First, the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated. (IV)

Aristotle takes as given the concept of art imitating life, mimesis, and the Poetics is primarily preoccupied with the mechanics of how that works, and how a poem or song or play or painting is made—and what constitutes success. And if indeed, poetry (or fiction, now, since we’ve broadened our understanding of story) is about imitating life, then it very much is a process of discovery, right?

Because at its very best, a story says something true. Or rather, more accurately, something True. That truth is already existent and external to the not-yet-created text.  It just is. That means it’s got to be something intrinsic to human experience—something we all can know, and acknowledge, and can understand—even if it’s at first unfamiliar.  At some point, we should recognize, “Ah, yes.  I know this truth.  This is exactly how it really is.”

And simultaneously, while discovering and revealing extant human truth, writing—and reading—is a constructive act. You might not know the story yet, it might still be waiting for you to discover it, but if you can only reach that story through that subconscious place where you know. . . then you must bridge somehow between that place in your brain, and the part of the story that lives in the black marks on the page.

Because the truth the story or poem tells to us is already there. It exists, with or without the frame of the words and the story. The more perfectly framed and expressed, though, the better the imitation. The more perfect the picture not just of the world inside the story, that is, not just the constructed details of economics and clothing and characters and landscape—but of something much more abstract and important, something humanly True—the more perfect that word-picture, the more accessible the underlying and informing reality becomes.



Part III coming soon . . .

Aristotelian Squick and Squee – Part One

In the last couple of years, I’ve added the terms squick and squee to my vocabulary collection. I’ve never been a reader of fanfic, so I came late to these valuable concepts—but they’ve now rooted deep into the critical sensibilities I bring to reading fiction. Disclaimer: my associations and working definitions for these words may well be eccentric, since I’ve only lately acquired them.

I’d seen the words, but reading Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s essay in Making Light was when I actually began to internalize the deeper ramifications of the concepts of squick and squee in a critical context. The Making Light essay references a post in Ellen Fremedon’s LiveJournal, cenelice to ganganne hwaer gegan hafde naenig man aer. (Ellen has a follow-up post, here. Both the Fremedon post and the Making Light essay are a couple of years old—the conversation, alas, finished. But I’ve invited Ellen to expound further on the matter with an essay, in some yet-to-be-determined future issue of CW. She expressed mild interest—if you’d like to read it, by all means nag her.)

Now—not everyone agrees that the specific words squick and squee are even useful, much less necessary. “I cannot fathom what was so lacking in the English language that “squick” and “squee” (I hope I’m spelling them right) needed to be created. Really, were these pseudo words/slang terms/abominations really necessary?” (That post is over a year old—practically an eon, in terms of the net. It nicely illustrates an attitude I still encounter, though.)

Why use a new word like squick, when we’ve perfectly functional words like revulsion? Two reasons: Squick cuts deeper than revulsion; it’s got that onomatopoeic quality reminiscent of handling exposed entrails, which makes it immediate and, well, visceral in a way that the more reserved and cerebral Latinate words just aren’t.

TNH sums it up this way:

The thing that most fascinated me was the part about slash fanfic writers learning techniques for holding on to good fictional values while they’re writing about massively distracting subjects, a.k.a. the Id Vortex.

What’s in the vortex? If I understand her correctly, it’s all the magic stuff: Sex, power issues, identity issues, physical or emotional violence, revelation, transformation, transcendence, violent catharsis, and whatever else is a high-tension power line for that writer.

It’s not something many writers can deal with skillfully. Jacqueline Carey pulls it off in her Kushiel trilogy, which explores BDSM in a fantasy setting. She approaches that brink of awful fascination combined with shivers of revulsion, over and over.

Incredible fiction can find the squick button and make you like it–because it’s ultimately about human truth: we’re attracted and repelled by viewing the slippery exposed guts, and then “oh my god did I just see something moving in there?” cuts straight to raising the hairs on your neck, just for a heartbeat or two.

Aristotle asserted in The Poetics, “Poetry in general seems to have sprung from two causes, each of them lying deep in our nature. First, the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated. We have evidence of this in the facts of experience. Objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity: such as the forms of the most ignoble animals and of dead bodies.” (IV)

That’s about squick. It’s important. It’s also a complex concept. Exciting and engaging stories can find my squick button, without actually pushing my face in it–it’s related to the Blair Witch Project phenomenon, whereby that which is unseen is so much scarier and ickier than anything seen clearly–but you can’t help looking anyway.

There are ancient human aversions as powerful today as ever–fiction gives us a tool to examine those hot-buttons, safely.



Reading Period

Our September reading period is closed, now. Thanks, everyone who submitted—we’ll be getting back to you as quickly as we can.

We will be open for submissions for the 2007 summer issue, come December 1st.

January 2007 debut and other notes

Our January issue is coming together and looking really exciting with stories from Elizabeth Bear, Yoon Ha Lee, Amy Sterling Casil, and Sherwood Smith, among others.

We’re working out the last logistical bugs so we can podcast stories for download, as well—which is a project near and dear to me. Stories become even more wonderful, read aloud, and the download-and-listen-at-your-leisure format makes a webzine that much more accessible.

In the meantime, if you haven’t already, you should check out for podcast sf, and for podcast horror.

You’ll note I’ve left comments enabled while we build our first issue of Coyote Wild, because we’d love to hear from you—suggestions, ideas, comments about what you’d love to see in your favorite ezine…Feel free to sound off.




Coming Soon!

We’re pleased and excited to announce our first reading period for Coyote Wild submissions opens September 1, 2006. Submissions accepted during this reading period will appear in our Spring 2007 issue.

It’s both exhilarating and terrifying to be nearing our debut, with a January 2007 invitational issue. The process of creating this publication has been an adventure all its own.

Here’s hoping you enjoy the ride as thoroughly as I have.