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[SOR] Eleanor Arnason’s “The Grammarian’s Five Daughters”

April 7, 2016

I’ve been riding my luck so far with this anthology but the other foot has now officially dropped.

Commentators sometimes talk about using short fiction anthologies to frame particular movements, moments, and aesthetic sensibilities in the history of genre writing. For example, Bruce Sterling’s Mirror Shades represented the original cyberpunk movement, Judith Merril’s England Swings SF introduced the British New Wave to American readers, and Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions provided American SF with a rallying point for the creation of its own new wave.  Though less common than anthologies built around themes or time frames, this type of anthology remains a major component in the conversation that genre culture has with itself.

Despite a fondness for introductions claiming otherwise, the VanderMeers are anthologists who re-frame the moments they purport to be merely chronicling. For example, while the New Weird may have started out as a moment in which British genre authors realised that they were no longer hemmed in by the commercial assumptions of British genre publishing, the VanderMeers re-framed it as the trans-Atlantic realisation that fantasy writers were free to borrow techniques and tropes from horror and science fiction.  Similarly, while Feminist SF may have started out as works of science fiction that engaged with feminist themes, the VanderMeers have reframed it as any genre story that is written by a woman and engages with broadly feminist ideas. Note that Sisters of the Revolution is not a ‘Feminist SF’ anthology but an anthology of feminist speculative fiction.

I point this out not in order to lament the presence of the fantastical but rather to make it clear that I knew what I was letting myself in for when I decided to write about this anthology. This being said, I was hoping to avoid having to read certain types of stories such as deconstructed fairy tales and stories about the magical power of writing. My luck has now run out as Eleanor Arnason’s “The Grammarian’s Five Daughters” is not just a deconstructed fairy tale but a deconstructed fairy tale about the magical power of stories that comes hot on the heels of a deconstructed folk tale about the magical power of stories. I do wish people would stop producing this type of story, if only for a little while.

 

 

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First: While Angela Carter deserved all the credit and attention she received for deconstructing folk and fairy stories back in the 1970s, people who pursue the same set of goals using the same set of techniques forty years later deserve no credit at all. Deconstructing fairy tales in order to explore the ways in which ideologies reproduce themselves through children’s culture might once have been fresh and urgent but it is now a formula that has hardened into a cliché that is itself long overdue a good critiquing. Seriously: Once Hollywood starts producing $100 Million examples of a particular story form, the time has come for authors to just… let it go.

 

 

I understand why this formula continues to prove popular: When you’re involved in any kind of creative writing programme you can’t just write a story… you also need to be able to argue your corner and talk about what it was that you were trying to achieve. Deconstructed fairy tales are popular in creative writing classes as it’s easy to find a problematic folk tale, fairy story or mythological vignette, produce a critique of said text, and write a story that addresses the problematic elements of your chosen source material. It’s writing by numbers: Follow the simple formula and you will produce not only a story that makes you look clever but also a story that will elicit an emotional response as chances are that your readers will already have feelings about the texts and characters you have chosen to play with.

I understand why people still write these stories and I understand why people enjoy reading them but given the number of deconstructed fairy tales genre produces in any given year and the length of time this story-form has been kicking about the place, I think it’s time we fired this puppy into orbit and left to orbit the Sun for a couple of generations at least.

Second: Back in the 1940s, A.E. Van Vogt wrote a novel about a fictional race of hyper-intelligent super-beings who are persecuted by normal humans referred to as ‘mundanes’. The novel received middling reviews at the time of its release but proved unbelievably popular with genre fans who identified with the persecuted super-beings to the point where some corners of fan culture still talk about non-fans being mundane. This act of self-aggrandising identification is best summarised by the then-empowering and now-pathetic observation that “Fans are Slan”.

There is nothing new about authors pandering to their readers. For as long as there have been novelists there have been people who realised that they could extract more money from their customers by suggesting that their lives were a subject worthy of artistic consideration. There’s economic logic in telling your customers they are special by virtue of being your customers, the problem comes when authors start thinking that because Fans are Slan, they must be some sort of genetically-engineered SlanLord with the magical power of story. An attitude that Jo L. Walton referred to it in a memorable post from last year as:

 

That half-awestruck, half-mischievous attitude that is mostly taken up — as it happens — by professional or wannabe professional storytellers, or by their closest economic allies, whenever they speak of the Power of Narrative.

 

I’m not a big fan of art that tells me I’m special because I know that I am noting of the sort. However, my loathing for art that tries to tell me I am special is as nothing when compared to the hatred I feel for art that tries to tell me that its author is special because authors tell stories and stories are fucking magic. Genre culture is already top-heavy with awards designed to tell authors that they’re special people… do we really need to put up with them writing stories about it too?

The title of Eleanor Arnason’s “The Grammarian’s Five Daughters” sounds like a masturbatory euphemism but in truth it is just a load of vomitous wank about a woman who gives her daughters the magical power of grammar.

 

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Once upon a time, in a country devoid of world-building, there was a woman who worked as a grammarian, which I assume is another way of referring either to the people who write second-rate genre fiction or to the people who publish it. With five daughters to feed and no source of revenue other than the ability to feel smug about the correct use of semi-colons; the grammarian is forced to cut her daughters adrift to fend for themselves. However, before they leave, she endows each of them with magical powers over a different grammatical element:

 

“In here are nouns, which I consider the solid core and treasure of language. I give them to you because you’re the oldest. Take them and do what you can with them”.

 

This being a fantasy story, the daughter makes her way to a land without nouns – I know – where everything is shrouded in mist created by the imprecision of their own language. The daughter opens her magic bag, the nouns spill out, and the country is reborn as Thingnesse with the daughter as its new queen.

Some time passes and the second daughter decides to chance her arm. However, because mummy gave all the nouns away, she is forced to make do with a magical sack full of verbs:

 

“This contains verbs, which I consider the strength of language. I give them to you because you are my special child and the most fearless and bold. Take them and do what you can with them”.

 

This being a fantasy story, the daughter makes her way to a land without verbs – I know – where nothing ever gets done because everyone lacks agency. The daughter opens up her magical sack, the nouns spill out, and the country is reborn as Change, a nomadic land where nobody sits still and the daughter rules alongside the Crown Princess.

Some time passes and the third daughter decides to leave home. Having given away the really useful grammatical components, the grammarian hands her daughter a big ole bag of adjectives:

 

“You are the loveliest and the most elegant of my daughters,” said the grammarian. “Therefore I will give you this bag of adjectives. Take them and do what you can with them. May luck and beauty go with you always”.

 

This being a fantasy story, the daughter finds her way to a land without adjectives – I know! – where everything is stark and unadorned. At first the daughter releases all of the good adjectives but this results only in a world where everything is apparently awesome. However, rather than naming this land Squeepool, the inhabitants point out that negative adjectives are what gives meaning to positive adjectives and that allowing only positive statements results in a land where no meaningful choices can be made. Having seen the error of her ways, the daughter lets the other adjectives out of her bag and comes rules the land of Subtletie alongside its non-binary shaman.

Some time passes and the fourth daughters presents the grammarian with the same deal: Give me what you can spare and I will make what I can of myself. Happy to send her daughter out the door with what I imagine must be a hemp sack full of Scrabble tiles, the grammarian gives her daughter the gift of adverbs and that daughter turns out to be me! No, not really… but what the fuck can you do with adverbs?

In her defence, Arnason recognises that adverbs are the linguistic equivalent of the crumbs and dead skin that collect in your keyboard and so depicts the adverbs as an energetic rabble that keeps escaping and interbreeding with useful words. Given that no self-respecting royal family is going to ennoble someone with power over adverbs, the daughter winds up selling her wares at a fair until she makes a fortune and realises that she will never run out of adverbs as the little fuckers keep breeding like Tribbles:

 

She opened the cages. The adverbs ran free – slowly, quickly, hoppingly happily. In the brushy land around the fairground, they proliferated. The region became known as Varietie. People moved there to enjoy the brisk, invigorating, varied weather, as well as the fair, which happened every year thereafter.

 

I… fucking… know! Despite the fourth daughter being reduced to carting adverbs about the place, the fifth daughter is given power over prepositions:

 

“Prepositions,” said the mother, and showed them to her daughter. They were dull little words, like something a smith might make from pieces of iron rod. Some were bent into angles. Others were curved into hooks. Still others were circles or helixes. Something about them touched the youngest daughter’s heart.

 

This is because the youngest daughter turns out to be an anal-retentive who demands an ordered world. So, this being an increasingly twee and irritating fantasy story, she seeks out a land full of chaos where people shout disconnected words at each other like logical positivists cataloguing sense data. She releases the prepositions from her sack and brings order to the world:

 

Somehow – it must have been magic – the things they passed over and around became organized. Shacks turned into tidy cottages. Winding paths became streets. The fields were square now. The trees ran in lines along the streets and roads. Terraces appeared on the mountainsides.

 

The people of this land are grateful for the daughters’ aid but also a republic so they’re not in a position to simply hand over supreme executive power. Not overly concerned, the daughter establishes a grammar school and winds up marrying four other school teachers, which brings us to the story’s cringe-worthy conclusion:

 

The land became known as Relation: In addition to genealogists and marriage brokers, it produced diplomats and merchants. These last two groups, through trade and negotiation, gradually unified the five countries of Thingnesse, Change, Subtletie, Varietie, and Relation. The empire they formed was named Cooperation. No plan was more solid, more strong, more complex, more energetic, or better organized.

The flag of the new nation was an ant under a blazing yellow sun. Sometimes the creature held a tool: a pruning hook, scythe, hammer, trowel, or pen. At other times its hands (or feet) were empty. Always below it was the nation’s motto: WITH.

 

Now… “The Grammarian’s Five Daughters” is not completely irredeemable shit. There are some reasonable jokes in there (cats who refuse to change with the world) and I like the way that each of the Princesses winds up in a completely different type of relationships even though they non-binary person is painted as undecided which is definitely a sign of how far we’ve come since this story was first published in 1999. I also like the way in which Arnason shifts her style for each of the daughters to reflect their unique linguistic powers but I think a more ambitious stylist could have made a lot more of this device. Hell… I’ll even admit to smiling when I got to the section about adverbs as I’ve been trying to cut back on them and recognise the fact that they keep popping up like suspicious moles. The story isn’t completely devoid of art or intelligence but fuck me this is some tedious, trivial, and self-aggrandising bullshit. In fact, I’d even go so far as to argue that the self-congratulatory tone of the story serves to mask some profoundly reactionary ideas.

 

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Look beyond the sentiment fuelling this narrative and you’ll find a story all about using language to create a civilisation and impose order on the world. In fact, the story even ends with capitalism dissolving the boundaries between states and creating what Arnason herself describes as an “empire”.

The problem with equating language with civilisation is that language has long been a stick with which imperial powers have beaten their subject peoples. It’s not just that marginalised groups have been mocked and systematically excluded by virtue of their failure to speak the language of their oppressors; it’s that oppressors have frequently used education as a means of dismantling oppressed cultures and replacing indigenous cultural memory with a set of narrative that flatter and legitimise the rule of the oppressors. As James C. Scott puts it in his book about the ungoverned areas of upland south-east Asia:

 

A diagnostic feature of the condition of barbarism is, for lowland elites, nonliteracy. Of all the civilizational stigmas that hill peoples bear, the general ignorance of writing and texts is the most prominent. Bringing preliterate peoples into the world of letters and formal schooling is, of course, a raison d’etre of the developmental state.

 

Because stories are fucking magic.

While Scott’s book looks mostly at the tension between ‘civilised’ literate people and ‘uncivilised’ people who rely upon more a more flexible (and untraceable) oral culture, it is worth noting that all of the cultures visited by the daughters managed to function before they received the ‘gift’ of the language in which their mother was an expert. We should not read “The Grammarian’s Five Daughters” as a story about how the magic of language brings happiness to the world but rather as a story about the systematic destruction of five independent cultures by the imperial dreams of a distant grammar Nazi.

Rather than imagining herself as some kind of grammar school Gandalf, Arnason would have been better off thinking sympathetically about the ability to conceptualise without the limits imposed by literacy. Would a culture that did not recognise adjectives be glum or highly advanced as a result of its relentless devotion to the facts? Would a culture without prepositions be reduced to the shouting of random words or would it capture the dreams of Descartes by constructing a belief system out of nothing but unassailable experiences? The reason I love science fiction is that I want to read about these kinds of radically different cultures, what I don’t want is fiction that tells me that my culture is superior to these types of cultures because we happen to have invented the fucking adverb.

Given the masturbatory title, the self-regarding tone, the recurring motif of people emptying their sacks, and the suggestion that the ability to string a sentence together is a magical power, it is tempting to conclude that Arnason might have been taking the piss but if so, the irony is simply too oblique for the story to hold a critical edge.

This raises an interesting question as to the politics of genre feminism: In order for a story to claim feminist credentials, must it be actively critical of existing values and power structures or is it sufficient to reverse the gender polarity and turn old school reactionary power fantasies into stories about awesome ladies doing awesome things? I don’t think trying to define ‘feminism’ is any more viable than trying to define ‘science fiction’ but we can still talk about which forms of feminism inspire and hold our attentions. Frankly, a piece of feminist fantasy fiction that flatters the author whilst perpetuating all kinds of ugly colonialist thought-patterns is not the type of story I want to read and I question the VanderMeers’ decision to include it in this anthology.

10 Comments
  1. April 9, 2016 10:46 am

    This doesn’t fix your overall problems with the story, which are well-argued and convincing even if not felt so much by myself, but I’m confused by:

    ‘The reason I love science fiction is that I want to read about these kinds of radically different cultures, what I don’t want is fiction that tells me that my culture is superior to these types of cultures because we happen to have invented the fucking adverb.’

    Speaking for myself, I don’t know if this criticism works when applied to a story like ‘Grammarian’ because I don’t think we’re supposed to approach the world the author creates as ‘real’. Saying she didn’t do a good enough job of exploring the cultures in the work is a bit like saying Alice in Wonderland doesn’t do enough to actively explore the distinct governance structures of a card-based royalty, or Humpty-Dumpty really should have made clear why humans are so willing to eat what is clearly a sentient life-form.

    I guess what I’m saying is that ‘Grammarian’ is much less a deconstruction of a fairy tale, and more just a fairy tale, which might in turn explain its lack of self-critique.

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  2. April 10, 2016 6:47 am

    Hiya :-)

    I think your final point is spot on… “deconstructed fairy tale” implies something where an existing fairy rale has been taken apart and reassembled in an effort to emphasise certain elements. Huntsman: Winter’s War is a deconstructed fairy tale… This is a story that draws on the styles and techniques of traditional fairytales and uses them to tell a new story… Like Frozen.

    I don’t think either form of metatextual writing needs to be critical but I question the decision to include a non-critical example of the form in a feminist anthology. Having said that, what bothers me is not that the story fails to critique its source material but that it is an unreconstructed reactionary fantasy. It’s terra nullius. That definitely shouldn’t be included in a feminist anthology and it’s definitely not something I want to read. Which brings me to your opening point…

    I agree that not all stories need to be speculatively robust, that’s just a personal preference… If it doesn’t feel like a story is engaging substantially with a concept or the world then it just feels like empty calories. This is one of the reasons why I don’t tend to read fantasy (or why I’ve never read the Alice books).

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  3. Peter Middleton permalink
    April 18, 2016 8:41 am

    What a crazy review of Arnason’s story – the reviewer needs a holiday or something! There’s nothing wrong with the story and everything wrong with the reviewers hobby horse!

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  4. April 18, 2016 11:20 am

    “The reviewers hobby horse”?

    Yes… because heaven forfend that I should write about something from the perspective of my beliefs and values.

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  5. April 18, 2016 4:16 pm

    In the following:
    Arnason would have been better off thinking sympathetically about the ability to conceptualise without the limits imposed by literacy. Would a culture that did not recognise adjectives be glum or highly advanced as a result of its relentless devotion to the facts? Would a culture without prepositions be reduced to the shouting of random words or would it capture the dreams of Descartes by constructing a belief system out of nothing but unassailable experiences?
    I don’t understand your meaning of “literacy.” Are you maintaining that without a written language, a culture would not have adjectives or prepositions?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Peter Middleton permalink
    April 18, 2016 4:33 pm

    Yes well, I guess I’m old fashioned but I generally prefer my reviews to be informative and unbiased – meanwhile some of us in this here post-modern wasteland of the soul might enjoy a bit on Nordic spiced literary fantasy? (I love Van Vogt by the way – reading him is like being launched on a mad rocket, however I’m not worried about the Damon Knight hatred of him or all the others who love to knock him – and Theodore Sturgeon same thing really – writing for your fans is a reasonably good thing in my view).

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  7. April 18, 2016 4:43 pm

    There’s no such thing as an unbiased review. Reviews are inherently biased because they are nothing but the reviewers reaction to and opinion of something.

    Some reviewers may feign objectivity but that’s mostly about the illusion of authority and the desire to appear authoritative. I make no claims to being authoritative. These are my opinions, take em or leave em.

    I’m really not a fan of Van Vogt. I like Hard SF as much as anyone but I tend to stick quite closely to the existential sensawunda of Clarke, Stapledon and Baxter. Anything that smells like adventure and derring-do struggles to hold my attention.

    I don’t read much fantasy nowadays, I just think it’s a bit silly really. Fantasy is all about the world rising up to meet the oncoming story and I don’t see the point of that kind of solipsistic writing. I like SFF as a means of approaching the world from an accute angle, I have zero time for escapist fiction.

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  8. April 18, 2016 4:44 pm

    I mean that I would have been more interested by a short story about a society with no written language at all.

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  9. Peter Middleton permalink
    April 18, 2016 5:21 pm

    Each to his own

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  10. April 18, 2016 5:41 pm

    True enough :-)

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