Thursday, October 19, 2017

Nobody Expects the Politically Correct Inquisition

(I should have written about this a week or two ago, but don't worry -- more of the same kind of material will circulate as long as Trump is President.)

The above cartoon began to circulate after Mike Pence walked out of a football game to make known his displeasure to NFL players taking the knee during the national anthem.  Liberals made much of the fact that the action was planned in advance -- like the players' protests weren't -- and cost the taxpayers perhaps a quarter of a million dollars, which is chump change in the Federal budget.  The same complaint could be made about any president's official visits to disaster sites, or other symbolic gestures, but of course when it's Not Your President or Vice President who's doing it, it's completely different.  The Democratic outrage that ensued was a bit odd, considering how many of these people claim that they regard Pence as a lesser evil that they can deal with when Trump is impeached.  I regarded it all as yet another distraction from the actual purpose of the protests, by making them all about Trump.

But then several people I knew, liberals all, passed along the cartoon above.  It too is far from the worst thing in the world today, but it infuriated me anyway because of the people who thought it was funny.  As with Stephen Colbert's "cock holster" quip, it's not really funny; there's no wit about it, it's just a crude and juvenile homophobic taunt, which means it's not the sort of thing liberals should be spreading.  But evidently they thought it was so hilarious that they had to share it.

Ordinarily I respond to homophobic rhetoric on the Internet with sarcasm -- how nice of woke liberals to show their superiority to Rethuglicans by indulging in homophobic attacks, that sort of thing -- but not this time.  I was direct:it really pisses me off when liberals show how woke they are by indulging in homophobic or misogynist attempts at humor -- which generally fail, as this one does. If you spread crap like this around I don't want to hear any bullshit about how much you care for equality and everybody getting along together. You're not an ally.

A few weeks earlier, Mel Brooks complained in an interview with the BBC that "political correctness is 'the death of comedy'.  He said Blazing Saddles, his Western spoof about a black sheriff in a racist town, could never be made today."  This is bullshit.  Blazing Saddles couldn't have been made just a few years before Brooks made it, not because of "political correctness" but because of the Hollywood Production Code, which was the result of the movie industry appeasing religious (especially Roman Catholic) reactionaries.  (I imagine that it couldn't have been made before the Code was adopted either, because of its flamboyant profanity.)  And even after the Code was replaced with a rating system, Brooks encountered resistance to making and releasing the film.  As I recall from the commentary track on one of the DVD versions, some of the actors Brooks wanted refused to speak the naughty words, and others were understandably uncomfortable about spewing racial slurs on camera.  ("Understandably," because of the well-known tendency of audiences to confuse actors with the roles they play.)

Contrariwise, movies full of racial slurs and profanity are reasonably commonplace today, especially when black filmmakers produce them.  But has Brooks never seen, say, Pulp Fiction, which contains plenty of both?  The racist material in particular seems to be there more simply for the taboo-breaking frisson rather than any dramatic or, as in Blazing Saddles, satirical reason.  I don't believe that "political correctness" is preventing such movies from being made.

Brooks went on to declare piously:
But there is one subject he insists he would not parody.
Referring to World War Two, he said: "I personally would never touch gas chambers or the death of children or Jews at the hands of the Nazis.
"In no way is that at all useable or correct for comedy. It's just in truly bad taste."
However, he says that is the "only thing" he would avoid. "Everything else is OK."
This is passing strange, because one of the sources of Brooks's notoriety was Blazing Saddles' predecessor, The Producers, about a couple of sleazy Broadway impresarios who stage a musical, written by a diehard Nazi, celebrating Hitler.  It's just in truly bad taste.  I've never been able to get through the entire film myself, not because I'm offended but because it's not all that interesting: as in Pulp Fiction, the "humor" comes from the breaking of the taboo.  Brooks has never disowned The Producers, and indeed in his dotage made it into a very successful stage musical.  At any rate, he has his own personal "political correctness," the line he won't cross.

Even more obnoxiously, Brooks tried to exalt comedy, especially his kind of comedy, into a virtually spiritual vocation exempt from criticism.  "Comedy has to walk a thin line, take risks. It's the lecherous little elf whispering in the king's ear, telling the truth about human behaviour."  Numerous critics pointed out that Brook was wrong about the jester's traditional role here.  I certainly agree that comedy, like art in general, can and should take risks, even if it offends; but those who are offended can and should speak up.  Traditional racist, sexist, homophobic &c. comedy wasn't meant to take risks, quite the opposite: it afflicted the afflicted while comforting the comfortable.  It couldn't have been made if it had done otherwise.  Because of the ambiguity of art and entertainment, many of such comedy's targets turned it around and found some kind of affirmation in it.  But to pretend that Sambo shows, for example, were intended to "tell the truth about human behavior" is dishonest.

I liked Blazing Saddles because it turned its satire on white racists, but I suspect that many whites liked because they thought it gave them a license to say "nigger."  As, apparently, many white schoolkids do with Huckleberry Finn, or rap.  I'd hope that it couladn't be made today, though, at least in its original form, because it's too uneven.  (That is typical of Brooks's films, except for Young Frankenstein, which had fewer comic peaks and more valleys as time went on.)  I wasn't offended by the fag-joke soundstage number featuring Dom DeLuise later in the film, but I never found it funny either; it takes no chances, it's a reprise of the 30s-style Hollywood fag jokes itemized in Vito Russo's The Celluloid Closet.  The closest it comes to edginess is having some of the rugged cowboys saunter off arm-in-arm with the queeny chorus boys, and that's not close enough.  (Heathers, and numerous other later comedies, came closer.  Colbert's "cock holster" line and the Pence/Trump blowjob cartoon fall even shorter.)  I think that Richard Pryor, who co-wrote it, probably deserves more credit for Blazing Saddles's virtues than Brooks does, if only because on his own Brooks never again reached those heights.

The proof of the comedy, and the satire, is in the laughter -- and people disagree on what to laugh at.  I think again of Ellen Willis's satirical definition of "humorless": it's what you are if you don't think rape, big breasts, or sex with little girls is funny -- but you're not humorless if you're not amused by castration, impotence, or vaginas with teeth.  And if an artist fails to produce the results he or she aimed for, he or she needs to be told.  Yes, comedy should take chances, but taking chances often fails, and while I sympathize with comedians who don't want to be told, they need to know when they fail.  I might watch a comedy about Nazis, the gas chambers, and all the other subjects Brooks rejects -- if it was really funny.  It's a question that can't be answered in advance.  Blazing Saddles only proved itself by being made.  As Joanna Russ wrote, "To apply rigid, stupid, narrow, political standards to fiction is bad because the standards are rigid, stupid, and narrow, not because they are political."  Like comedy, it's hard to do, and not many bring it off.  Nothing is sacred, including comedy.

Friday, October 13, 2017

A Hundred Selves

Through the windy night something
     is coming up the path
     towards the house.
I have always hated to wait for things.
     I think I will go
     to meet whatever it is.*
I should probably avoid sites like The Neglected Books Page; it's not as if I need to learn about more books that I might want to read, after all.  There are hundreds of books piled around my apartment that I want to get to, and I hardly need to add to them.  Or do I?  I think that is really a metaphysical speculation, so I'll leave it there.

The fact remains that a couple of evenings going through Neglected Books's archives pointed me to several books that I hadn't known before, and was glad to have discovered.  Isabel Bolton's The Christmas Tree, for example, originally published in 1949, with a gay man as a key character.  And I just finished reading Elizabeth Coatsworth's Personal Geography: Almost an Autobiography, which pleased me even more.

I've long been interested in books about aging, by aging people, whom I see as pioneers advancing before me into the country of Old Age -- less and less before me as I get older myself.  May Sarton's journals were the first for me in this genre, if genre it be; then Jane Rule's writings, both fictional and autobiographical, about old age.  I've also returned to books by older women writers who were well-known in the mid-twentieth century but are less well-known now.  I tend to think of them as "lady" writers, which I've come to realize is unfair.  Many of them have rather old-fashioned styles, but when I become accustomed to their manner I find that they are more realistic, hard-headed and honest than most of their male contemporaries.  Coatsworth (1893-1986), probably most famous for her 1931 Newbery-Medal children's book The Cat Who Went to Heaven, led quite a life.  She traveled around the world from an early age, usually with her sister or her mother, and didn't slow down much even after she married (rather late) and became a mother.  She and her husband -- also a writer -- settled in Massachusetts and Maine, which puts her close to some other interesting writers, like Sarton, Ruth Moore, and Marguerite Yourcenar.

Personal Geography was Coatsworth's last book, though she lived another ten years after it was published.  It's a collection of short pieces that cover parts of her life from childhood to her years of widowhood.  I was struck by her travel descriptions, some of which took place a century ago, in Europe and Asia very different from what they later became; since she lived into the 1980s, she saw many changes and paid attention to them.  Nor did she idealize the past too much:
I loved China the most.  At that time it was half ruinous, with the especial sadness and poetry that hang like a mist over ruins; I doubt if I should care much for communist China, though it may be a better place to live in [89].
I did not know travel at its dawn, as Marco Polo might have claimed, though he, too, had many predecessors.  But it was at my dawn, and the early light lies on my memories.  We never went on tours, or by schedule: we followed our whims stayed for a day or a week or a month in one place, or struck off at a tangent when someone told us of some wonder.  Only once did some pilgrims to the high Buddhist monasteries of the Korean Diamond Mountains look at us in wonder as the first white people they had seen (and examined our clothing almost to our skin) but we traveled at a time when all ports did not look alike and when people, East and West, wore the clothes their ancestors had worn. I should never feel such joy traveling in today's homogenized world [181-2].
To each her own!  I'm even more impressed by Coatsworth's travels when I consider that this was before air travel, cheap international telephone calls, credit cards, bullet trains, to say nothing of the Internet.  Nor was the world in those days necessarily safer.  I get a lot of joy from traveling in today's homogenized world, and I think I'm too much of a sissy to dare what she, her sister, and her mother dared to do.

Like Ruth Moore, Coatsworth appreciated her rural neighbors but wasn't sentimental about them:
When a lightning storm begins after dark, the farmers and their wives always dress, to be ready to save the stock if the barn is struck.  Fire, the unknown -- one begins to fear the things that the farmer fears.  And one understands more and more their helplessness before bad neighbors or tramps.  Each man is so isolated.  He does not dare make enemies: someone may dig up his potatoes, but the farmer does not dare voice his suspicions; someone may carry away one of his sheep, but he does not dare rouse bad blood, that may end in a burning barn or a fire in his woods [128].
Ah, the good old days!  And she's matter-of-fact about her aging, failing body.
I forget words (the other day I came to a full stop because I had lost "button" from my mind), and generally use a synonym because I know that any word is better than none.  I forget names, but I comfort myself with the knowledge that I have always forgotten them.  The long-ago day comes back to me when a stranger asked me my name -- I was perhaps six -- and the sudden quesetion drove it entirely from my mind.  I still remember the bewildering feeling of "I don't know who I am"; and perhaps I still feel it [157].

These remarks are necessarily self-centered, but not by intention.  They are written primarily for people of my own age or for those who are approaching it, to discuss honestly the problems which we all face.  It is my good fortune to have inherited, nothing so dashing as courage, but acceptance of what cannot be changed, and a willingness to enjoy the small gifts of life which still are so plentiful if one will look for them [158].
She's good company.  I'll hang on to this book, as I have to May Sarton's journals, and refer to it now and then as I catch up with her.
*Elizabeth Coatsworth, Personal Geography: Almost an Autobiography (Brattleboro VT: The Stephen Greene Press), p. 183.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Conspiracy Theories for Me ...

Guess who said this:
Much of this is being carried out stealthily, in closed sessions, with as little public notice as possible. Other Republican policies are more open, such as pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, thereby isolating the U.S. as a pariah state that refuses to participate in international efforts to confront looming environmental disaster. Even worse, they are intent on maximizing the use of fossil fuels, including the most dangerous; dismantling regulations; and sharply cutting back on research and development of alternative energy sources, which will soon be necessary for decent survival.

The reasons behind the policies are a mix. Some are simply service to the Constituency. 
Noam Chomsky, of course.  It's an excerpt from his next book of interviews with David Barsamian of Alternative Radio, due to be published in a couple of months.

I'm an admirer of Chomsky, I've read most of his books on politics, and I've learned a lot from him.  I also have some significant disagreements with him.  Like just about everybody, he's critical of conspiracy theories, but when I read this excerpt it occurred to me that if you took it out of context, you could easily accuse him of being a conspiracy theorist.  (He often has been accused of just that, particularly his discussions of the media.)  Especially the coy epithet "the Constituency," referring to "the Constituency of private power and wealth, 'the masters of mankind,' to borrow Adam Smith’s phrase," but also the dark references to the Republican agenda being pursued and enacted out of the public view.  This is, of course, exactly what is being done in Congress, as with the Obamacare repeal bill -- though also, as Chomsky knows, with Democratic initiatives like the Transpacific Partnership "free trade" pact: when legislators know that they are working on a highly unpopular bill, they will want the populace to remain safely ignorant of what they're doing.

As I've said before, conspiracies do happen, and dismissing theories about them out of hand is dishonest.  The question is the quality of the theories, which is often difficult to assess when you're dealing with secretive activity.  As Richard Seymour wrote (via) earlier this year, one sign of invalid conspiracy theories is their "assumption of omniscience": the conspirators know in advance how their opponents will respond, and have already prepared countermoves to exploit and defuse the efforts of the Resistance.  They are also, in Patricia Roberts-Miller's sense, demagogic: the theorist is the good Us, the conspirators are the wicked Them.

Chomsky isn't a conspiracy theorist, but I think that this interview shows how difficult it is for even a careful thinker like him to avoid adopting the tone and rhetorical tactics of a conspiracy theorist.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Freedom of Expression for Me But Not for Thee, One More Time

A friend posted this tweet by Billie Jean King this morning:

I suppose that King meant "public condemnation" to imply "public condemnation by the President," but even if so, she's wrong.  And since she left out the specific case, I'll begin with the more general statement she actually made, since many people would agree with it.

Freedom of expression does not mean that a person may not have to face public condemnation.  If you express unpopular views, or just views detested by a large number of people (who may not be the majority), you can expect to be condemned publicly.  Liberals and progressives are just fine with this principle for views they detest -- Republicans, Bible thumpers, white racists, Donald Trump.  In many cases they demand not just condemnation but the suppression of such views by the State.  It's only when opinions they agree with encounter pushback that they become more purist, though they are ready to demand the suppression of the views of their critics, as King did.

The First Amendment, and the general principle of freedom of expression, assume that there will be public debate, without making any assumptions about the quality of that debate.  (And a good thing, too, since the level of public debate is generally not high.)  What is important is that someone should be able to express a highly unpopular opinion without being silenced -- by the State or any other force.  Someone who wishes to express a highly unpopular opinion had better expect to encounter hostile responses; one very annoying tendency visible among liberals is that, for example, they should not be made to "feel like an outcast" (via) for taking an unpopular stand.  This would be bad even if they didn't feel that no such consideration need be extended to those whose opinions they hate.

It's to their credit that the athletes themselves, as far as I've seen, don't seem to be demanding that they not be criticized.  Perhaps because most of them are black and are therefore closer to political struggles of the recent past, they knew from the outset that standing up against the majority would make them lightning rods for hostility. 

Now I'll address what I take to be King's more specific reference to President Trump's attacks on the athletes who protest against American white supremacy, while generally supporting American military aggression.  It's true, as the friend who posted the tweet on Facebook argued, that the words of a President carry more weight in the public sphere than those of most citizens, though not (as she also argued) that they take "the form of law."  Admittedly, partisan fans of a president will want to see them that way.  But my friend, like so many Democratic loyalists, wasn't nearly as concerned about (for example) President Obama's prejudicial remarks about Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden, let alone Obama's general war on whistleblowers.  Privately, she probably would have agreed with them even if they had the imprimatur of a president she admired, but like most Democrats she ignored them or minimized their impact on the well-being of people who'd been accused of crimes.  Nor, if I recall correctly, did she object to Obama's public criticism of Fox News, though right-wing partisans reacted to it in much the same panicky way that Democrats are now reacting to Trump.

Though I agree that a President's public statements will carry a lot of weight, it struck me funny to see my friend making the claims she did just as the owners of the NFL, and the NFL commissioner, struck back at Trump's demand that protesting athletes be fired.  Former NFL coach Rex Ryan, who'd campaigned for Trump, announced that he was "[bleep] off."  (Presumably bleeped by ESPN, where he appeared, rather than by Democracy Now!, who quoted him.)  Pushing back against the Leader of the Free World is harder than pushing back against a single football player, but it can be done, and it's being done.  (I'm with "former NFL player Donté Stallworth," who also appeared on DN! this morning, and warned against letting Trump hijack the protests into a controversy over himself, though that already seems to be happening.)

P.S. When I pointed out some of this, my friend replied that I should "tell it to the Joint Chiefs of Staff" in connection with Trump's announcement via Twitter last summer that transgender troops would no longer be allowed to serve in the military in any capacity.  This was a notably ill-chosen rebuttal, because, first, Trump sent that tweet as a declaration of policy, which was not the case with his denunciation of the NFL protestors; and second, because the Joint Chiefs did not accept the tweet as having the "form of law."  They announced that until a policy had been worked out formally, they were going to ignore Trump's announcement and transgender troops would continue to serve.  Until Trump signed a memo implementing the ban, it wasn't law.  The tweet itself did nothing.  This case also supports my general distaste for the hopelessly inadequate way liberals have been responding to Trump's provocations.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Those Were the Days!

The rally concluded, and people began strolling to the buses we had chartered to take them back to their cars.  Suddenly dozens of squad cars appeared, as if from nowhere.  They had been carefully concealed behind buildings surrounding the rally.  We counted hundreds of police from five different agencies.  Many of the squad cars displayed shotguns and contained six police officers in full riot gear, something most people there had seen only in television.  The Redwood City police department and the San Mateo County sheriff's office had prepared an elaborate ambush, and they were obviously disappointed that they had not found a chance to "teach you some patriotism," as one cop yelled at the protesters from a car window.

Only local newspapers reported that the march and rally had taken place, and they underestimated the size of the crowd, reporting that most citizens of Redwood City were hostile to such activities.  Bruce Brugmann, the Redwood City Tribune reporter who had been covering the napalm campaign, became so disgusted by the blatant censorship and and rewriting of his stories that he left to found the radical weekly newspaper the Bay Guardian.  Even a mere twenty miles away, the press and radio in San Francisco imposed a total news blackout.  This did keep many people in ignorance.  But it also educated tens of thousands about the role of the media.  Almost everyone in the area knew that an important event had taken palce and could not help but wonder why it was not reported and how many events from other areas were not being reported to us.
The above text is taken from the historian H. Bruce Franklin's account of a rally against napalm production in the Bay Area in 1966, in his book Vietnam and Other American Fantasies (Massachusetts, 2000), pages 87-8.  The book as a whole is very informative.  I decided to read it today after seeing a critique of the first episode of the new Ken Burns-Lynn Novick documentary on the Vietnam War for PBS.  The critique mentioned that
in the 1990s historian H. Bruce Franklin found that most college students recognized the famous image of a prisoner being executed by a man firing a pistol inches away from the victim’s temple. But most of the students believed the shooter was a communist officer, rather that General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, chief of the South Vietnamese national police, an American ally.
This didn't surprise me; it fit with so much else I knew, such as the long and largely successful propagnda campaign to cast the United States as the victim in Vietnam, rather than the victimizer.  Franklin also quotes an amazing speech on the Vietnam war by Barack Obama's role model Ronald Reagan in which, as Franklin points out, "not a single sentence ... is accurate or truthful" (29).  I've seen a similar falsification about the post-9/11 war on terror; it's as if the structure of the scenario is embedded in people's minds, and they need only to insert the names and dates to sit the situation.

But the reason I wanted to quote this particular passage has to do with other misrepresentations of history that I see among many liberals and progressives, including those who are old enough to know better.  The militarization of the police that is presently under way, for example, and the treatment of peaceful dissidents as enemies of the nation who must be crushed, is not as new as many people seem to want to think.  The 3500 or so white, clean-cut, middle-class folks who gathered to object to the production of napalm for use against Vietnamese civilians weren't attacked and beaten by the police that time, though it's clear that the police were hoping for an excuse to do just that.  Later on the police were less restrained.

The other point is the suppression of news of such a rally outside the local newspapers.  Many liberals fondly believe that the mainstream media took an adversary stance toward the government in those days.  That's simply false, though as always even their customary collusion was never abject enough to suit the mighty.  Whatever the flaws of the Internet (and they are many), it makes it much easier to spread information about such actions now.

This greatly offends the sensibilities of the high priests and priestesses of the cult of Expertise.  I've begun grappling with the dreadful apprehension that I may actually have to read Hillary Rodham Clinton's new book.  At first I was skeptical of the brief excerpts I saw online, which were so badly written and downright stupid that they were hard to credit: surely they weren't representative of the whole?  But the more I saw, the more I had to believe that they were.  (See Sam Kriss' account of his own ordeal reading the book here.)  And this bit, widely circulated, is symptomatic:
This is what happens in George Orwell's classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, when a torturer holds up four fingers and delivers electric shocks until his prisoner see five fingers as ordered. The goal is to make you question logic and reason and to sow mistrust toward exactly the people we need to rely on: our leaders, the press, experts who seek to guide public policy based on evidence, ourselves.
This Moebius strip of a sentence (well, two sentences) seems not to be atypical of What Happened.    Every quotation I've seen that features a literary allusion shows that she (or her ghostwriters) don't really understand the material they're invoking.  Orwell certainly hoped that his readers would mistrust "our leaders, the press, experts who seek to guide public policy based on evidence, ourselves."  (Ourselves?)  For that matter, doesn't Clinton want us to mistrust our Supreme Leader Donald Trump, the press that made people dislike and distrust her, and ourselves if we find that we disbelieve Hillary Clinton?

Oh, it's true that Americans have come to distrust our government and other institutions over the past half-century.  H. Bruce Franklin reports the results of a poll that tracks the growth of this distrust since 1958: "In 1958 ... over three fourths (76.3 percent) of the American people believed that the government was run for the benefit of all, while only 17.6 percent believed that it was run by a few big interests" (43).  By 1994 the numbers had flipped: "76 percent expressed this profound distrust of the government, while a mere 19 perccnt still clung to the belief that they lived in a representative democracy" (46).  This is bad news -- how long can a country survive when its citizens have so little trust in their government? -- but for people like Hillary Clinton, the remedy is more trust in our national institutions; it is unthinkable that those institutions should be more trustworthy.  Instead we citizens must believe in our leaders' probity, which is not much more plausible than that five fingers are four.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Those Who Manufacture History Get to Repeat It Over and Over

Something to keep in mind amid all the Trump administration's ranting about North Korea: Iran entered into an agreement with the US to ensure that they would make no nuclear weapons. Iran hadn't in fact been making nuclear weapons in the first place. US propaganda consisted largely of references to Iran's "nuclear program," which most people, often including the propagandists, heard as "nuclear weapons program."  The GOP and some Democrats opposed the agreement, for unclear reasons. The agreement is now in place, and Iran is in compliance with it, but the warmongers still are trying to portray Iran as a nuclear threat to the US.

Now imagine that North Korea agreed to get rid of its (still very few) nuclear weapons, and kept its promises, as Iran has. Does anyone believe that the US would lay off, would stop threatening North Korea and presenting it as an existential danger to American security? Or would the US continue to lie, as it does about Iran and its compliance with the agreement that the US forced on it?

You don't have to imagine very hard, because North Korea made such an agreement with the US in 1994, and kept to it.  The US broke it.  I think it's reasonably clear that these media campaigns have nothing do with peace, stability, or even American security -- not least because our hawks are doing everything in their power to diminish our stability and everyone else's. They're not even about oil or other resources that our plutocrats crave; Iran has oil, but North Korea doesn't have much we could want.  The issue is domination, the demand that nowhere in the world should there be any nation that isn't under US control.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

And Don't Hold the Guacamole

There are writers who are known as writers' writers: they are appreciated more by their colleagues than by the general reading public, because of their technical expertise and willing to experiment with their art.  I was interested in "experimental" artists when I was a kid, though I was generally liked and appreciated their theories and their lives more than their work.  Now I see experimental art as an attempt to appropriate the prestige of the sciences for the arts.  At best, to support the metaphor, an artistic experiment should confirm an artistic theory, and in my opinion they rarely do.  When a writer I respect recommends such work, I often follow through, but I'm usually disappointed.  That probably reflects badly on me, not on the work, but there you are.  I'm not, I think, a naive or unsophisticated reader, but maybe I'm the wrong kind of writer.

Carol Emshwiller seems to be such a writers' writer.  Wikipedia, for example, refers to her fiction as "avant-garde", and she herself calls it "experimental", though she adds: "Now I'm passionate about what I think of as postmodern. (I've read all sorts of conflicting definitions of postmodern, so I'm not sure I'm right about what I think it is.)"  She's never won a Hugo (science fiction fans') award, but she has won a Nebula (the Science Fiction Writers of America -- hence, a writers' writer).  I believe I got interested in her work because Ursula K. Le Guin wrote some appreciations of it.  At some point I found her 2002 novel The Mount at the library, and found it impressive but rather icy and inhuman, which was probably intentional.  Then last year I read a Le Guin essay which mentioned Carmen Dog (1988), and I've been meaning to get to it ever since.  Finally, yesterday, I did so.

In Carmen Dog, women are turning into other animals and female animals are turning into women.  Emshwiller tells the story mostly from the viewpoint of one of the latter, Pooch, a family pet who's turning human while retaining many of the traits of her breed.  When one of her owner turns into a huge snapping turtle and bites its baby, Pooch runs away with the baby into New York City, where she almost becomes an opera singer, is captured along with other changing creatures by a male scientist who believes that they can be forced to revert if proper discipline is imposed on them, and then by a group of male scientists who want to recover motherhood for men, since women have in their view failed to do the job properly.  These are all familiar tropes in feminist science fiction, which Emshwiller exploits, turns on their heads, and otherwise plays with.  She's very much in control, and her writing is tight and ironic, with a satirical edge reminiscent of Jane Austen.

For example:
All those creatures that have been kept relatively germfree in the doctor's basement are scheduled for artificial insemination the day after tomorrow.  The Academy uses only the best genes in the nation, those belonging to governors, generals (three star or above), atomic scientists, as well as those of the directors of nuclear reactors, presidents of the largest corporations, oil magnates, and so forth.  The men picked are splendid, tall, and for the most part blonde.  All earning well over $100,000 a year, not counting perks. Of course it has taken time for these men to achieve status in their fields, so most of them are by now paunchy and bald.  (Since the imagination is suspect particularly at present, artist' and poets' genes are not used.  Besides, it is hard to tell where artists come from.  Some have dreadfully wizened little parents) [210-11].
Looking again at this passage out of context, I realize that it sounds like a cliche, thinking perhaps of various eugenic fantasies about breeding a master race, of scientists caricatured as soulless control freaks who mock the arts and humanities and so on.  Unfortunately, such fantasies and scientists are still with us, promoting themselves and very much in the public eye.  But it works in situ.  Let's try another passage, about Pooch's encounter with a sinister figure who manipulates her into a three-way with another changer:
Pooch does learn a lot, though, that she had not even suspected before.  Knowledge that may stand her in good stead later on, though she hopes she will be able to use it with someone for whom she had some real feelings.  She had not been aware until now, for instance, of the exquisite sensitivity of the breasts, and especially had not been aware that the nipples of the male are, or so it seems, as sensitive as those of the female; nor had she realized the potential of the backs of the knees, not to mention the toes and the bottoms of the feet.  She had also not realized the many ways that music, ribbons, belts, pepper, and guacamole could be used [143-44].
Better, eh?  "Guacamole" is a fine, Austenish touch.

In addition to The Mount, which I think I had better reread, I've also read Ledoyt (1995), Emshwiller's non-science-fiction novel about a young girl growing up in the American West.  She has several other books, which I'll get to before long.  Carmen Dog drew me in.