Decolonizing the Imagination: Some Thoughts on Critique and Feedback

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Good editorial feedback can make a huge difference in a writer’s life. Bad editorial feedback can make a huge difference too, and not in a good way.

A post I wrote for JaneFriedman.com, “How to Spot Toxic Feedback,” has generated a lively conversation–so many people have had to muddle their way through inept, misguided, and sometimes even nastily personal feedback on their work. The response to the post has been validating.

Jane followed up on that post with one of her own, “How Do You Respond to Criticism about Your Work?,” which is about the various different ways that authors tend to respond to editorial feedback, and I think she’s spot on. I’ve seen authors respond to my feedback on their work in all of these ways–some helpful, some less so.

Another post I’ve been thinking about in the last few weeks is “How a Reader’s Feminist Critique Changed My Sci Fi Novel.” In it, author Daniel Price shares how he was floored when his first book, The Flight of the Silvers, was called out by some readers as sexist.

Certainly, this author did not see himself this way–he simply hadn’t interrogated some of the tropes he was making use of in his novel, or the way that they play into outdated (and sometimes toxic) stereotypes about women.

The story ends well, with the author asking a reader to actually spell it out for him. She did, and he took that feedback to heart, and then sent her the draft of his next book, which she signed off on: “Wow, you listened.”

Which probably seemed revolutionary to Price, and probably will sound revolutionary to others as well–the male (author) actually listened to the female (reader)! Changes were made! Listening! Improvement! Success!

But that ending had a different resonance for me. Because I’m an independent editor, I often work with male authors whose novels contain these sort of unexamined, and sometimes even toxic, ideas about women, and gays and minorities too. (And yes, they do tend to be male authors.)

I consider it one of the great privileges of my life, in fact, that I’m in a position to point out these sorts of things without ever accusing anyone of being sexist, homophobic, or racist–because 9 times out of 10, these male authors aren’t any of these things. They’ve simply absorbed a metric shit ton of bad ideas from TV, movies, billboards, other books–etc., etc., etc.

In order to undermine these bad ideas, we have to decolonize our imaginations, all of us, and I’d like to think that’s part of what I help people do–before their books have been published. Which is to say, before they’ve subjected themselves to the casual invective of strangers who are, quite rightly, sick of this shit.

But I get paid for that labor. And it is labor, both creative and emotional. The author of this article does not mention having paid a cent to the female reader who took the time to read two of his books and to respond to one of them with an in-depth feminist critique.

Based on personal experience, I’d wager she probably took quite a while to get the wording just right on that one.

So I’m glad Price is listening. But I hope he understands the value of the critique he has received–and offers to pay for it in the future. Because expecting women and members of minority groups to act as your sensitivity readers for free is–well, probably one of those ideas you should interrogate.

Recent Posts: 10 Things I Did Wrong (and Right!) as a Debut Novelist

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Oh hey! It’s been a busy spring/summer/what season is it again? Recently, it occurred to me that I haven’t been keeping folks up to date on recent things I’ve had published around the interwebs, so here are a couple posts people seem to have found useful over at Litreactor.

The first has the clickbait-y title of “10 Mistakes I Made As a Debut Novelist“–basically because in the year or so leading up to the publication of my first novel, I clicked the hell out of links like that, but I still did all of these things. If your first book is set to drop sometime in the foreseeable, consider yourself forewarned.

One of the most remarked-upon items on this little list was “Assuming friends of friends would help.” Yeah, you know what they say about assuming…

On the other hand, the more time that passed since the publication of that novel, the more I realized there really were some things I did right. Unlike the items on my first list, these things were things I found in the sort of clickbait-y listicles that offer advice to debut novelists.

But those lists are so long that no human being could ever possibly do everything on them. (Still, being who I am, I tried, and to a certain degree, still am. What season is it again?) The items on my list, “10 Things I Did Right As a Debut Novelist,”are the things, out of all of those things, that actually made a difference. (Like, say, keeping my website up to date, as per this post.)

Debut novelists, learn from my mistakes! Benefit from my (hard-earned) insight! And keep on rockin’ in the free world. We need your voices and visions now more than ever.

XX

SD

Giveaway! Family Recipes & Stories

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Friends, I made a thing! And for a limited time, I’m giving it away: a little handmade zine containing the recipes, wine pairings, and family stories from my 40th birthday dinner party.

I have a tradition of serving five courses paired with wines for ten friends for my birthday–and this year, each dish was tied to a memory from my childhood, in connection with one of the five sides of my heritage (French, Indian, Portuguese, Lithuanian, and Norwegian).

I spent months dialing in each one of these recipes, testing variations, and in some cases, actually recreating dishes with my dad, though neither of us had more than a few notes (from my grandmother’s recipes) and the memory of exactly what each dish should taste like.

In this, I’m speaking specifically to pepper pot, a Guyanese dish that, to me, is the platonic ideal of a rich, spicy, slow-cooked beef stew, and to luchi, a type of (East) Indian fry bread that my grandmother filled with coconut and brown sugar. You’ll find the recipes for both in this little book, as well as the recipes for a delicious (and satisfying) potato-cabbage tart (or pie), my famous deconstructed borscht salad, and the dish that ultimately inspired this meal, La Boheme Seafood Bisque.

From the zine:

When I was six, my parents divorced and my dad returned [to the Caribbean] to work for Windjammer Barefoot Cruises. Within a year or so, he met a nice Canadian lady who had recently divorced as well. It wasn’t long before the three of us had embarked on a grand adventure, sailing around the Caribbean, camping from FL to MI (I swam in all of the Great Lakes that summer!), and flying from Toronto to Edmonton.

Kathy’s apartment in Edmonton was located above a fantastic French restaurant, La Boheme. Everything was great at La Boheme, but the seafood bisque was such a perfect dish that I would try to recreate it many times over the next three decades of my life–and on Christmas 2016, I finally nailed it, the exact taste of that summer.

Preparing this epic menu and meal was such an amazing experience that I decided I had to share it, so I created an (extremely) limited edition zine with all the stories and recipes, along with some fun photographs.

At this point, just about half of these little booklets have been accounted for, so if you’d like one, send me an email ASAP! I’d love to drop one in the mail to you: susan [at] susandefreitas [dot] com

Cheers!

Some Thoughts on “Self-Promotion”

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I’m generally not into offering criticism of anyone but politicians on the Internet. But this post, entitled, “Try Hard in Clown Shoes,” mystifies me, and perhaps my thoughts here might be useful to other debut authors faced with the task of self-promotion.

The author of this article seems to hold that promoting your own work is embarrassing at least and debasing at most–that it’s “uncool” (because it’s earnest), and furthermore, a difficult thing to do as a woman–either because we’re not supposed to draw attention to ourselves or because doing so is actually dangerous in a patriarchal society.

All of which I can understand and appreciate, to a certain degree. But as someone with a background in marketing and publicity, I think this is the wrong way to approach the issue.

1) It’s not about you, it’s about others–it’s about service. I wrote a novel about eco-activists coming of age in the Southwest, and as an author with a small press (read: zero publicity), I consider it my job to reach the people who might want to read that sort of thing, the people who will see their own concerns and life stories reflected in it. (If I hadn’t written it, I would certainly want to know about it.) The woman who wrote this article wrote a book about chronic pain–which, you’ll have to agree, is a far more universal subject, and one much further down on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. And yet she considers posting about her book on social media embarrassing and “uncool?” Think of how many people suffering in silence would take comfort in this book–think of how many of them would feel legitimately seen, heard, understood, would perhaps even physically benefit from reading this book. If that was my book, I’d be on a friggin’ crusade with it.

2) If you come from a place of service–moreover, a place of love–you don’t have to shuffle your feet as part of some fake Promotional Persona. My work stems from my love for the authors who’ve influenced me (Ed Abbey, John Nichols, Lydia Millett), for a particular place in the world (the Southwest), for the natural world (the high desert in particular), and for the people I’ve known (artists and activists). Really, it’s pretty simple–people who love what I love connect with my book. It seems to me that anyone who has gone through what this author has gone through and who loves the way she’s written about it would take up the standard of this book–they’d shout about in forums and Facebook groups, and they’d get it for everyone they know in similar straits. As would anyone who loves someone in chronic pain, right? No one would have to be fake about anything. (Also–if it’s uncool to care, I hereby resign from the James Dean club.)

3) Is it unsafe to draw attention to yourself as a woman online? Certainly, if you’re taking on Pepe-the-Frog MRA wingnuts/Sad Puppies/Gamergate dudes, or posting nudie pix. But drawing attention to your work as an author? I think that’s pretty much just expected. If you’re a woman who’s reluctant to do so, consider the fact that you might be responding to some trauma you experienced in a different sphere of life–or are simply acting in a conditioned way, per society’s shitty unspoken dictates to girls. Personally, I don’t think it’s that much of a risk to talk about your work online–unless you see the possibility of anyone criticizing you as a risk.

That said, I’m sure I’ll annoy some people with this post, just as I’ve annoyed some people by promoting my book (without having any idea I was doing so, because that is one of my superpowers as a geek). But if, having done so, I’ve helped even one person reluctant to engage in “self-promotion” approach the issue from a different, more comfortable, angle, you know what? I’m okay with that.