A full list of my publications is available at kaufmanwrites.com.
I write this on the day we commemorate the signing of a document that states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Upon this foundation we built a country. A country that now operates on the legal basis that there is a monetary value to life, one which limits the liability of those forces that would deny us that supposedly unalienable right.
The recent supreme court decision Michigan v. Environmental Protection Agency holds that, “It is not rational, never mind ‘appropriate,’ to impose billions of dollars in economic costs in return for a few dollars in health or environmental benefits.”
So there we have it, human life, an unalienable right, is of a lesser value than the cost of retrofitting aging power plants. The land on which we live, and from which we live, the land of our liberty, and land where we seek happiness, is of a lesser value than the profit margins of an entity that has no life, that has no expectation of liberty, and can feel no happiness.
There is, to my mind, a simple solution, and it lies in the law. We need to legally recognize that the value of human life is immeasurable, and that the value of the planet that allows us to live is likewise immeasurable. We need a law in place that recognizes this simple truth, and which states that any cost-benefit or monetary argument should have no standing in any court of law when it is balanced against a human life.
To say that we might not live in a country where we may live, live with liberty, and live to pursue happiness, because it costs too much to allow us these things, is more than un-American, it is anti-American, it is a crushing blow, or perhaps more accurately an evisceration, of both the words and the spirit on which this place was founded.
No one has ever asked me where I get my ideas from, or if I’m worried I’ll run out of ideas. But if anyone ever cared to ask, I’d say, “from paying attention,” and, “no, because if I pay attention for five minutes an idea will present itself.”
Case in point (because I’m writing other shit, so I don’t want to tease this one out into a proper story right now) as follows.
Ingredient the first: the rebirth of feudalism. The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and the middle class is disappearing. At some point, it stands to reason, the rich will consolidate the entirety of all the money. Seriously, something like half of the bottom 90% of Americans doesn’t actually possess money. They have so much debt that they live in a perpetual state of net loss.
No, I won’t post a source. You have the fucking internet, so why have you not been paying attention? Besides, this is a world-building thought experiment, so all I really need for a source is “shit I remember reading at some point.”
Also, the rich own politics. They’re nicer about it than when the also basically policed the land they owned as well, but they make the laws. Anyone who’s paying attention knows this.
But, family fortunes tend to be lost after a handful of generations. At some point I read something that said most had been lost after three generations.
This means that our dynastic overlords have an expiry date. Which means that the resources they’ve accumulated will be up for grabs in every hundred years or so. But only the already rich can grab them, because poor people don’t fucking get rich, because, jesus, a million things. The deck is stacked.
So we have rich families rising and falling in fortune, scheming and conniving to usurp each other.
Okay, ingredient the second: Emojis are replacing language, and some of them cost money. There was a NYT article recently about how emojis are causing problems with writing and reading skills. No, I’m not linking it, you have fucking Google.
Maybe it was an NPR article?
Anyway, emojis are replacing language, and some of them cost money. So if some people are very rich, and some people are very poor, it stands to reason that some people will have access to more emojis, and others will have access to fewer emojis.
Remember, if you don’t own the emoji pack, you can’t even read them on your device. All of the emojis you don’t own show up as placeholder symbols. So some people will essentially have access to more language. They will be able to communicate more ideas, and more complex ideas, because they can afford to own that language. The poor will literally have their ability to communicate and, even crazier, think abstractly and critically limited because they just can’t buy the “words.”
I mean, did you read that article about how “blue” wasn’t a concept for a long damn time? How there just wasn’t a word for it, so people probably didn’t even see it? William S Burroughs talked a lot about how language forms thought, and so have quite a few other critics. So what words would the rich keep to themselves? What thoughts do they not want the people below them thinking?
Bam, there’s a fucking world. I wouldn’t even make the main characters super poor; the rich need a consumer class, they’d just prefer it was a consumer class that didn’t have any real resources but credit. Of course, that consumer class can’t afford the more complex language, or they have “better” things on which to spend their debt, but they still have a handful more abstract concepts than the properly poor. The real key to making the story work is choosing what words and concepts the rich keep to themselves, and how lacking those words and concepts influences the way the debt-class thinks and talks.
Throw in a bildungsroman, or a prince-and-the-pauper, or a wrong-side-of-the-tracks romance, or a visitor-from-another-place (like, a place that doesn’t use emojis), or, hell, even a fucking roman à clef about struggling to be a writer, and you’ve got yourself a god damn story.
My newest short story, “Things You Can Buy for a Penny,” went free to read on the inimitable Lightspeed Magazine website this week. It’s a story about the man who lives in the well, and the people who come to him with pennies to buy wishes. Apparently, people liked it.
The way this story opens up like a matryoshka doll is just one aspect of its charm. I’m also a huge fan of the wet gentleman and the fairy tale feel of all the elements here.
I like this narrative. Although the tale is simple, there’s wit and freshness in the telling, as well as a neat twist at the end…It’s also a good example of the sort of story that isn’t soft fantasy, the magic being not only unambiguous but central to the tale; how the characters deal with the magic is what the story is about.
While Martha Burns at Tangent was a bit more ambivalent:
How much one enjoys the story is, in part, a product of how much one enjoys this sort of [fairy-tale] meta-mockery. It can be read as funny, clever, or as a reminder that fairy tales are generally retold these days with a wink-wink…I, personally, can never quite decide whether I like this or it is too clever for me and this story teetered on the edge.
But in the end she recommended it “for its fast pace and light tone.”
I’m really thankful for all of the positive feedback my little yarn has received, and I am exceptionally thankful to Lightspeed and it’s wonderful editorial staff. I recommend you check out each of the reviewers, because they all recommended other amazing stories along with mine. I also recommend you take a look at what Lightspeed is up to these days, and think about supporting them with your own pennies. They didn’t win a Hugo last year for nothing.
Natanya Pulley, gifted writer and teacher extraordinaire, in a moment of what can only be described as incredible folly, perhaps after stripping a good deal of paint in an unventilated room, decided to give her Creative Writing students two of my stories, “Coping with Common Garden Pests,” and, “Each Terrible Wall.” I am incredibly honored that she did so, even as I feel I should buy her a fan for her paint booth.
Her class came up with some questions for me based on those stories. What follows are my answers, available in a public forum with a built-in commenting tool so that if her students have any further questions, or would just like to ridicule me anonymously from the relative safety of the internet, they can engage at their leisure.
If anyone else cares to read or comment, they too are welcome…too. Too’s a funny word, isn’t it? Too. Tooooooo.
Ahem, anyway, I hope I will not prove a staggering disappointment to anyone. Read the rest of this entry »
The Collagist is one of those truly amazing journals, and one I’ve been submitting to for years now. After several lovely rejections from the current and previous editors, I am ecstatic to say that The Collagist finally said yes!
So head on over and read what is another amazing issue that is only slightly let down by this one story about, like, giant sensory organs where walls should be? Or something?
Anyway, you should definitely check out Issue Sixty Six of The Collagist.
If you don’t care about video games, don’t bother clicking through. Read the rest of this entry »
So I just came across Joshua Rothman’s really wonderful New Yorker article about genre (in the Tweeter feed of Sequoia Nagamatsu who edits the really lovely Psychopomp, go investigate all that), and you should read it. I’ll give you a minute.
I’m not going to get into the whole thing here — it’s a great article and I love what it has to say about genre — but I did want to write down something it helped clarify for me. Our current conceptions of “genre” are highly problematic; I’ve previously talked about how their increasing granularity is bad for writers.What Rothman does so nicely in his article is briefly explain Northrop Frye’s genre system…I’m not going to explain it again here, because you should have just read Rothman’s article.
One of the key differences between the way publishing constructs genre and the way Frye does is what “cross-genre” comes to mean. Essentially, today’s publishing-oriented genre system means “cross-genre” is a mixing of tropes. Cowboys vs. Aliens is perhaps the most ad absurdum way to think about it. Cross-genre to Frye is a blending of approaches, a blending of systems.
I’ve recently been thinking a lot about “great” works of literature, the works that have stuck with us, stood the test of time, informed generations of writers…you know the drill. What they have in common, at least to my mind, is that they provide their readers with new tools — mechanisms for addressing reality, for writing new stories, etc. The problem with our current system of genre classification is that it doesn’t allow space for creating new tools. The most innovative tool it allows is genre crossing, and that limits authors to existing tropes. “Innovation” in this context becomes the rote work of finding unused combinations.
Blending systems, as Frye would have us do, changes the equation. Anatomy and confession (you read the damn article, right?) are necessarily progressive affairs. By which I mean, where the recombination of tropes roots the author in the past, the recombination of systems requires the author to address the present, the ongoing. The former rejects new tools, the latter practically requires their invention.
I know I’m being a little obscure, but to hell with you. I have two graduate degrees in English, I’m supposed to be obscure.
I’m really happy to report that my newest story, “Coping with Common Garden Pests,” is live in Unlikely Story. You can read it for free!
Unlikely Story, for those who don’t know, publishes themed issues. This particular issue is another installment of their wonderful Journal of Unlikely Entomology, so expect lots of bugs. Also expect a whole bunch of great, speculative-fiction short stories.
Unlikely will be posting an interview with me that covers anything I might have said here that anyone might even be able to pretend is interesting. So in lieu of any commentary, I’ll just update this post with a link at some point in the future.
*Update* The Unlikely Interview is live.
One thing I noticed while watching mainstream coverage of Ferguson was how any place reporters had set up a stationary camera, the police would shine a bright light at the camera. One CNN reporter actually commented on it, and said he didn’t know why the cops were shining a light at reporters. Seems obvious to me: at night, the light messes with the camera’s light meter, and essentially makes everything on the far side of the light source invisible to the camera. The police do not want to be watched. They want their activities to go unrecorded. They want the activities of the people they are policing to go unrecorded. They know that if anything that happens leads to legal action, they will be completely protected so long as there is no recorded proof of the incident itself. It’s the same reason the airspace over Ferguson was declared a no-fly zone, and media aircraft were kicked out.
Thankfully, the courts have decided that it is not unlawful to record the police, but why should it be incumbent on the policed to make those recordings? The White House issued a bullshit response to the original petition calling for police to be required to wear body cameras. Make no mistake, it is a bullshit response, one that boils down to, “we will do nothing,” because no politician wants to be on the wrong side of the police unions when election time rolls around.
Police need to be held accountable for criminal actions. There is a preponderance of evidence that, if nothing else, the investigation into Mike Brown’s murder was massively mishandled, to a degree that conspiracy seems much more likely than incompetence. At every step along the way, from the crime-scene tech with a dead camera battery to the prosecutor who seemed to be working for the defense, there was an absolute unwillingness to challenge the police. The people who work closely with the police, who rely on the police for their jobs and personal success, will always be unwilling to challenge the police in any situation where there could be even a whiff of subjectivity.
And this makes a police officer’s uniform a symbol of otherness, of immunity from the laws they enforce, of unchecked authority, and power without balance. It demeans the uniform, it undermines the ideas of protection, service, and justice. It makes the police an invading force, operating from a different culture, morality, and rule of law than the people they police.
Body cameras should be required for all on-duty police officers. They should be a part of the uniform. Not as a symbol of mistrust. Not as a way of saying that the police must be watched. But because the police should be representatives of the people. So that the police and the policed know that when they stand before each other they are equal in their accountability. The actions of the police are not the actions of some other, but the actions of the community. No more than a criminal should believe himself in opposition solely to the badge and gun, but not the community he preys on, or than an innocent man and his community should fear victimization by outsiders, should any community be allowed to choose ignorance, to turn away when vile things are done in its name.
Justice is not a game of cops and robbers, it is the accountability of the community to itself. Unjust laws and policies can not change, and the just ones will forever lack credibility, so long as they are enforced out of sight.
This is the fifth year in a row that people have posted, en masse, “It’s Decorative Gourd Season, Motherfuckers,” to teh internetz, so I thought I’d write my own take on this annual tradition. I sent it off to McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, who published the original article (and my own Open Letter to Jif Peanut Butter), but they said it was “too meta, even for [them].” So, for shits and giggles, I went and posted “It’s ‘It’s Decorative Gourd Season, Motherfuckers’ Season, Motherfuckers” to Buzzfeed Community. Because why the fuck not. After all, if you prick me, am I not still a hack?