Recommend What’s Good, Never Mind the Stars

A recommendation, with or without a review, is a more powerful system than a five-star rating system.

Recommend the books you like, and stay silent on the books you don’t. If a book’s content offended your sensibilities in some overwhelming way, and it was somehow a surprise, and you can’t help yourself, then write a negative review if you must. There are places and times for negative reviews, but mostly not. Otherwise, here are the best things that anyone can do to help the book industry, help their favorite authors rise to the top, and improve a culture of reading:

  • Write good reviews about what you like.
  • Recommend those books through social media and in person.

It’s that simple, nothing more than a two-step process, but it’s critical to improving book culture, and the quality of the books which rise to the top. If I could wave a magic wand, I would force Amazon, as well as Barnes & Noble, to abandon their five-star rating systems in favor of a mere “Recommend” system. Someone can either recommend a book, or not; there would not even be a thumbs-down option. Then, if if a reader is so moved, one can leave a review. That’s it.

Why? The five-star system leads to some peculiarities which now dominate book culture. For example, one of the best-written and most important science-fiction novels of the twentieth century, The Handmaid’s Tale, has an equal rating to Fifty Shades of Grey.1

Recommend _The Handmaid's Tale_.
How is it one of the greatest science-fiction novels of the twentieth century earns the same rating as a badly informed masturbation fantasy filled with dangerous BDSM advice? Look to the culture of bias.

How can this possibly be so? Are these two books, then, truly on equal footing? No, not even close, and this can be explained by understanding that we live in a culture of bias. With respect to five-star-rating systems and ranting reviews, the culture of bias tends to over-celebrate books which probably don’t deserve the hype, and under-respect books which have incredibly important or difficult things to say which could inform the dialogue of a mature society.

The five-star rating system, and its associated rant culture, encourage a leveling to the lowest common denominator, a regression toward the mean, and a celebration of mediocrity. It can’t help itself—the system mathematically demands that this be so, because a five-star system appears quantitative and official when in fact it is entirely subjective and largely arbitrary. This is its deceit. The four stars of Grey do not equal the four stars of Handmaid’s, and they never will, but it sure appears that they do in a list of books on Amazon.

The rant-reviews, too, do not help. One- and two-star ratings accompanied by “this wasn’t for me” or “this book was too difficult for me” or “I just didn’t get it” are of no help to anyone, and they encourage a culture in which categorical errors and misapplied subjectivity draw down the ratings of objectively better books. No book deserves a one-star review because someone thinks it “just wasn’t for me.” No book should ever receive a one-star review because it was challenging, and yet challenging books garner one-star reviews all the time, for no other reason than that they are challenging. This, and other such fallacies, cause many book-shoppers to choose what probably doesn’t deserve their time and to gloss over what probably requires a closer look; worse, it causes them to down-rate books and drive other readers from those books, for the worse.

I don’t know what to do about this. Amazon and Barnes & Noble aren’t going to abandon the five-star system, not unless legions of readers were to agree with me on this point, to perceive the harm of the five-star system, or there were to be a major shift from inside the industry. I think that’s unlikely.

Instead, let’s agree to write good, generous, frequent reviews of the works we hold most worthy, and to recommend what we truly believe worthwhile to others, both online and in person. It’s the only way that book culture can grow, especially a culture of good books. If we must critique, then truly critique—try not to rant—and let’s be sure we’re not simply spewing our own inner failings and disappointments. Be thoughtful. Read more.

Reader Bias, Analysis, and the Lie of Five Stars

Reader Bias and Author Brand

Today, we have a culture of bias, one which celebrates our irrationalities rather than seeking to minimize them. This culture infects our politics, relationships, and economy—all negatively—not just in the United States but around the world.1 Most prominently, the widespread and unchecked influence of confirmation bias is worsening divisions in racial and gender prejudice, class tensions, and politics.2 I’m in plentiful company when I say irrationality in today’s discourse, never mind a dearth of empathy, is threatening to kill us.

Alas, this essay won’t do much to fix these global woes. My sights aren’t so high.

Instead, I intend to focus here on a specific subset of consumer bias, though one that speaks volumes to our larger social ills: biases in what we read, as individuals, and how we think about what we read. What we read, as a society, has a strong bearing on the health of our society. How much we read, similarly, hints at our society’s well-being, stability, and growth. Viewed through a contemporary capitalist lens,3 what we read, how we read, and how much we read reflect the ethical and intellectual makeup of our consumer choices, especially in a society which so clearly exchanges time for money. Every hour spent reading caries with it, after all, an opportunity cost.4 In this narrow sense, then, to read is to consume, but what are we consuming and how does it affect us? Are today’s consumers rational readers or, if you will, are readers rational consumers?

The (Ir)Rational Reader

Decades of business research contradict the narrative of the “rational consumer.” Biases lead consumers to be both irrationally critical of goods and services which may be helpful to them, as well as accepting of what may harm them. Contrary to the message of many first-year business or economics courses, consumers are neither particularly well informed nor systematic in their decisions.5 They are driven mostly by the paradoxes of choice, by availability bias, and by social pressures—not by reason.6 These emotionally embedded forces lead most people to predictably rote behavior, patterns driven not by analysis but by their subconscious. In fact, absent a systematic approach to decision making, we now know that our “preferences are malleable and context-dependent, that memory and perceptions are often biased and statistically flawed, and decision tasks are often neglected or misunderstood.”7

In other words, most people make most of their decisions, most of the time, on subconscious autopilot. They are not, in the strictest sense, making any decisions whatsoever.8 Worse, the literature tells us, they then post-rationalize these irrationalities, convincing themselves that their choices were in fact in their own best interest, when in fact they were anything but.9

Our biases, the literature tells us, are extremely difficult to counteract. They underpin our cognitive wiring, leftovers from survival strategies critical to our ancestors. A tendency toward availability bias, for example, made sense when our entire species lived in small tribes, with limited social choices and even more limited environmental opportunities; negativity bias made sense when, every day, our worst-case scenarios almost invariably ended in death.

As individuals, we are wired for irrational biases. It takes systematic, analytical, logical efforts to triumph against them.

Unfortunately, most of us have no idea our biases bind us so completely, or that there’s any fight against them to be won. We live too much in a culture which revels in them.

What, then, is this culture of bias? In a culture of bias, individual feelings, preferences, loyalties, and habits are more celebrated, more prevalent, and carry more weight than observable facts, empiricism, logic, and analysis. This system minimizes, ignores, or is largely ignorant of the effect of biases on all of us. Emotivism may be long out of vogue as a formal system of moral thinking,10 but in practice it’s alive and well in today’s globalist super-society, and Americans aren’t the only ones living by their impulses.

That this doesn’t fill the masses with horror, that we’re not collectively aghast and prepared to do anything to make more capable decisions, is a proof of the culture’s existence.11 Instead of seeking reason, in our culture we tend to accept our own discernment prima facie, untested and unchecked. Many of us do not learn, in our lifetimes, the basics of logic or rhetoric, either to utilize them or to fight their misuse; insidiously, our society accepts and even celebrates irrationality. That logical biases exist, and what they mean for our day-to-day behavior, seems to be information utilized mostly by marketing gurus and advertisers, who take advantage of our ignorance to twist our perceptions—a variety of Roland Barthes’s mythologies,12 the worst kind, what Harry Frankfurt labelled bullshit.13 We are a society aswim in it.

We can rewire our biases, to some extent, but they will remain with us throughout our lives. What are we to do? We can question them, check them against formal analyses, and point them to more factual and helpful ends.14

Unfortunately, this requires real work.

The Importance of Reading

People often read to escape work, the doldrums, or other unpleasantnesses. We use fiction especially to live through another’s eyes, to let someone else’s troubles eclipse our own. Excepting the books assigned to us in our education, most of what we read, we read by choice. If I read, I may choose between non-fiction and fiction. In fiction, I can choose between “literature” and “genre”15, and in “genre” I might choose between science fiction, romance, mystery, adventure, and so on. Within each “genre,” of course, I can choose between authors.

For example, I may choose Anne Rice or Stephenie Meyer over E.L. James, whose “genres” do not quite align but who share some qualities in common. (More on these three in a bit.)16 Since we choose what we read, it stands to follow that we make irrational choices in what we read as much as we make irrational choices for anything else. For those who say that what we read, or whether we read, are unimportant or are entirely arbitrary choices and have no impact beyond individual preference, consider: reading fiction strongly impacts our personality;17 television or film do much less to develop critical thinking, vocabulary, and cognition than does the written word, so reading A Song of Ice and Fire really is much better for you than watching A Game of Thrones;18 and without reading—especially deep, difficult reading—humans typically do not learn disembedded thinking, a crucial skill in any advanced society.19 Literally, a democracy or republic which does not read will, almost by definition, wither; its members will lack both the dialectical abilities to debate one another and to resolve their differences, as well as the empathy to desire what’s best for their fellow citizens.20

In other words, reading (even reading fiction) is in itself an exceptionally rational act, one which can deliver extraordinary benefits. Reading contributes to an individual’s development, and it plays an incalculable, central role in the functioning of a healthy democracy or republic. It follows that what we read and how we read matters.

Reader Bias

Bias in reading exists aside from mere preference. We all have preferences; for example, I prefer to read science fiction over romance, and when we say that someone has a preference, we generally accept that such preference is personal and unforced. Sometimes we even mean that it is informed, though often the idea of an informed preference is troubled from the start. Thus, for now, let us leave questions of reader preference aside. What matters here is that bias exists and that it is a separate phenomenon from preference.

In the more academic sense, bias “is defined as any process at any stage of inference that tends to produce results or conclusions that differ systematically from the truth.”21 Though similar, this definition differs from my dictionary’s: “An inclination or prejudice for or against one person or group, especially in a way considered to be unfair.”

Now, let’s apply something like the spirit of these definitions to the concepts of readers and books. We could, I suppose, apply it to drivers and cars, chefs and foodies, or climbers and ropes, but I’m interested in bias as it applies to books because I’m a writer, and because I believe that a greater focus on bias by a greater number of writers and readers could shift the book industry, and our society, for the better. Read better words, make a better world.

Preference, Reader Bias, and Analysis: Non-Fiction

While I want to focus most of this essay on fiction, we should obviously analyze non-fiction, as well, to weigh its value for us and for others. If I try to read Ken Ham’s Demolishing Supposed Bible Contradictions, for example, I can do so as generously as possible and yet I can scarcely move past Jason Lisle’s introduction. Notably, Lisle establishes the criteria by which Ham later categorizes the various “non-contradictions” of the Bible; Ham’s own structure depends on Lisle’s. Yet by page 19, Lisle’s propositions show serious fractures, and by page 20 I can reject the entirety of the text because Lisle’s argument dismisses millennia-old foundations of logic, causality, and reason. For me to accept either Lisle or Ham, I would have to jettison formal reason, Aristotelean logic, and centuries of observation. Furthermore, I would need to adopt a worldview which permits, and even requires, capricious intercessions by an arbitrary deity.22 Additionally, I would need to ignore arguments presented by more respected, capable, and careful theologians,23 ones whose rigor I might respect even while remaining an agnostic and a sceptic. I would, lastly, need to obliterate any respect I had for any kind of humanism; indeed, I would have to return to a mindset more appropriate to 617 CE than 2017 CE, and I would have to forget the histories and definitions of both secularism and science.24 I can only conclude that neither Dr. Lisle nor Mr. Ham have any intention of convincing logicians, or anyone capable of a modicum of critical reflection—that cannot be their goal—and that their texts exist only to reinforce the gullibility of the uncritical and the uneducated, to lend their followers a flickering sense of empty superiority. I can’t recommend anything by Ham, but may I suggest The Blind Watchmaker25 or Cosmos?26

Before shifting to discussions of fiction, it’s also worth noting the concept of preference in non-fiction reading. One may prefer to read no non-fiction—most illogical—but assuming that one reads non-fiction, what about preferences? Are religious apologetics or treatises on astrology on equal footing with books about economics or neurobiology by peer-reviewed experts? Are tomes about flat-Earth theory, billed as non-fiction, on par with readings on the latest findings in extraterrestrial geology? The answer to these last two questions is a resounding no.27 But what about preferring astronomy texts to applied biology? Or any two texts from physics or chemistry, from well-argued historians, or from the humanities?

Read as you choose.

We can’t read everything, and certainly not in a timely fashion. Available knowledge about real phenomena, with real bearing on our lives, has outstripped any individual’s ability to learn; we passed this threshold long ago. What are we to do? Read critically and learn deeply, for understanding the rigors of any one field or discipline is likely to give us an appreciation for and something of the ability to judge quality and capability in other fields and disciplines, to recognize when others are also rigorous in their thinking, reading, and studies; this isn’t foolproof, but it’s a start. We can develop a network of writers, thinkers, speakers, researchers, debaters, and others who we know to be as exacting in their approaches as necessary, who understand the sciences and other secular institutions such that we can trust them. We must, in the end, join a web of experts, relying on each other in a spirit of situational leadership.

Preference, Reader Bias, and Analysis: Fiction

Now, to the meat of it: Reading fiction can increase empathy28 and reinforce learning in ways which reading nothing but non-fiction cannot.29 A habit of fiction reading reduces stress, frees the mind of obsessive thoughts, and broadens thinking. For proof of this, ask any fiction junkie. Preference in subject matter or theme do not seem to matter much, but reading broadly and choosing strong authors over less-capable writers can. While we all have preferences, I strongly encourage readers—and especially writers—to reach frequently outside their own preferences. Science-fiction writers should read romance, horror writers should explore historical fiction, mystery writers should sample speculative fiction, Caucasian writers should survey African American writers, male writers should study the books of female writers, and so on. Reading outside our experiences widens our appreciation for others’ voices and views, but on a more fundamental level it wrenches our cognition into new shapes, prods our brain with unfamiliar words, and furthers us as human beings.

Except when it doesn’t. Not all writing is created equally, and much of it is crap, but how can we begin to assess its quality?

One Aspect of the Author Function

First, learn something of the authors whose work you read. Though it matters differently for different works, the “author function” does matter.30 We should be cautious about assessing work based upon knowledge about the author, even as much as we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be ignorant of the author. In fiction as much as in non-fiction, we should keep an open mind to fresh voices. First readings should be, if at all possible, generous ones, yet we can infer a certain amount of a text’s value by its author.31

For all authors, what if anything do we know about their backgrounds and training? What do they say, if anything, outside their fiction? With what organizations and causes do they align themselves? In examining the author, though, we should try to avoid our own confirmation biases, any tendency toward out-group homogeneity bias, and certainly our own in-group biases.32

If we are liberals and an author is an avowed conservative, for example, we should probably keep an open mind about the ideas and themes which emerge from the text, at least until we are convinced of the author’s own biases and position.33 Context still matters. As for myself, if an author is an out-and-proud neo-nazi, I’ll either skip the reading or, at least, approach it with my defences in place; if an advocate of crystal healing, I’ll heighten my scepticism of the author’s underlying messages, even in a work of fiction;34 if someone with whom I’m likely to agree, I still want to limit the likelihood I’ll absorb themes and messages without reflection.

Beyond the creator, of course, exists the creation. In non-fiction, I’m ever grateful for good, clear writers, but we should be exceedingly slow to judge the merit of non-fiction by the quality of the writing or, for that matter, by the moral fiber of the writer; the list of awful people who have given us great discoveries and inventions is a long one.35 True, if any idea has merit, it’ll appear in someone else’s writing sooner or later, often more clearly than in the original, but we should be careful in non-fiction to separate the value of information from either the quality of the writer or faults in the writing.

In fiction, however, the situation becomes more complex. As important as Darwin’s On the Origin of Species might be, the facts of his observations about evolution by natural selection exist separately from the work itself. Had Darwin not written his famous observations, the phenomena would have been noted, sooner or later, by someone else in some other way. The concept of evolution by natural selection exists distinctly from observations about it. I cannot, however, say the same of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Had Joyce not written Ulysses, himself and at the exact time he wrote it, that work and those ideas expressed with that artistry would never have existed. Period. Non-fiction is invariably about something, some subject outside itself; fiction may wrestle with ideas outside itself, but possesses an essence independent of yet interwoven with its subject matter. Fiction is a fact unto itself.

This makes the judging of fiction a somewhat different ordeal, beginning with the author and the context of its creation. H.G. Wells was an awful racist; can I still enjoy The War of the Worlds? Virginia Woolf was a deplorable classist; does that make Orlando any less impressive? Does knowing these facts about Wells or Woolf alter our views of these works, change their meanings, or give them a richer subtext? I hope so. Both books still occupy space on my shelves.

The Words Themselves

The second way we might assess the value of what we read is to examine, with extreme care, even a limited portion of it. Like medical doctors, we can examine minutiae in an effort to diagnosis the condition of the larger organism. In a book, we might analyze a few pages, drawn from a pivotal or foundational scene. Smart fiction matters, fiction with rich language, well-considered themes, new ideas, and a voice. Garbage in, garbage out is a real danger. Can we identify garbage and avoid it? The first hint appears in the prose. Neil Clarke, the publisher and editor of one of science fiction’s most prominent and award-winning magazines, lists the following as the number-one criterion for assessing a story—it must be:

  1. Well-written. Language is important. There is no distinction between “style” and “substance” or “story” and “writing.”

I agree. How a work of fiction is written cannot be entirely unknotted from how worthy the work is. If the prose is fundamentally poor, allowing for quirks of style and uniqueness of voice, then the work as a whole is probably empty.

With that in mind, let’s return to Anne Rice, Stephenie Meyer, and E.L. James, and let’s employ them for comparison. I could, of course, talk about any work, but these three provide particularly juicy and illustrative similarities and differences.

Both Rice and Meyer list nineteenth-century romantics and Shakespeare among their influences. To my knowledge, Meyer has never explicitly admitted Rice as an influence but, shall we acknowledge, their works share some sparkly, beautiful, obsessive vampires. James, by contrast, expressly began by writing Twilight fan fiction, triggering copyright infringement; she is, by some accounts, still infringing.36 In terms of ethos and pathos, Rice’s body of work reflects her varying relationships with Catholicism and atheism. Meyer has stated that her Mormonism didn’t directly inform her creations, but those are distinctly contrite, well-mannered, and abstinent bloodsuckers between the covers of her novels.

How to assess these series? A complete thematic analysis would deserve a book-length treatment—I neither have the time nor the inclination—but with a brief summary we can approach our goal. The themes in Rice’s work, taken as a whole, run vastly deeper than Meyer’s; then by comparison, Meyer buries James. A clear hierarchy of richness, complexity, and content divides these authors.

In ways that Meyer fails to do, Rice explores centuries of changing zeitgeists, the slow impact of secular philosophies across the sociological landscape, the effect of humanism and the Enlightenment upon the spirit, the erotic nature of violence, gender fluidity, ennui, the weight of modern history, and the corrupting nature of power. Conversely, throughout her series, Meyer reinforces themes of feminine inferiority, objectification, and stalking-as-love; her attempts at larger themes ring hollow. Through Fifty Shades of Grey, James repeats Meyer’s themes, then adds a worship of oligarch-style capitalism, dangerous mythologies about “fixing a man”,37 and a good dose of sociopathy which can’t be explained by vampiric bloodlust. For good measure, she gave millions of readers an extremely bad education in responsible BDSM.38 Both Meyer and James fail, in any real sense, to resolve their plots in ways that shatter or alter expectations about the more harmful tropes at the centers of their work; they give us comedies when only tragedies would do. Rice, being the stronger writer, makes no such mistake.39

If we comb these works, does anything appear in the page-by-page text which might warn us? Could we, at the glance of a few paragraphs, make some educated guesses about Rice vs. Meyer vs. James? While we should never judge an entire work by a few paragraphs,40 we can certainly make some assertions, and quickly. Here is a passage from Twilight:

There were five of them. They weren’t talking, and they weren’t eating, though they each had a tray of untouched food in front of then. They weren’t gawking at me, unlike most of the other students, so it was safe to stare at them without fear of meeting an excessively interested pair of eyes. But it was none of these things that caught, and held, my attention.

They didn’t look anything alike. Of the three boys, one was big—muscled like a serious weight lifter [sic], with dark, curly hair. Another was taller, leaner, but still muscular, and honey blond. The last was lanky, less bulky, with untidy, bronze-colored hair. He was more boyish than the others, who looked like they could be in college, or even teachers rather than students.

The girls were opposites. The tall one was statuesque. She had a beautiful figure, the kind you saw on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, the kind that made every girl around her take a hit on her self-esteem just by being in the same room. Her hair was golden, gently waving to the middle of her back. The short girl was pixielike [sic], thin in the extreme, with small features. Her hair was deep black, cropped short and pointing in every direction.

And yet, they were all exactly alike. Every one of them was chalky pale, the palest of all the students living in this sunless town. Paler than me, the albino. They all had very dark eyes despite the range in hair tones. They also had dark shadows under those eyes—purplish, bruise-like shadows. As if they were all suffering from a sleepless night, or almost done recovering from a broken nose. Though their noses, all their features, were straight, perfect, angular.

But all this is not why I couldn’t look away.

I stared because their faces, so different, so similar, were all devastatingly, inhumanly beautiful. They were faces you never expected to see except perhaps on the airbrushed pages of a fashion magazine. Or painted by an old master as the face of an angel. It was hard to decide who was the most beautiful—maybe the perfect blond girl, or the bronze-haired boy.

They were all looking away—away from each other, away from the other students, away from anything particular as far as I could tell. As I watched, the small girl rose with her tray—unopened soda, unbitten apple—and walked away with a quick, graceful lope that belonged on a runway. I watched, amazed at her lithe dancer’s step, till she dumped her tray and glided through the back door, faster than I would have thought possible. My eyes darted to the others, who sat unchanging.

“Who are they?” I asked the girl from my Spanish class, whose name I’d forgotten.

As she looked up to see who I meant—though already knowing, probably, from my tone—suddenly he looked at her, the thinner one, the boyish one, the youngest, perhaps. He looked at my neighbor for just a fraction of a second, and then his dark eyes flickered to mine.

This foundational scene, in which Bella and Edward become conscious of each other, signifies much about the rest of Twilight, and its symbols may or may not mean more than Meyer intended. For those who’ve also seen the film, the apple takes on a different role, and may or may not convey the obvious. In the film, what does it mean that Edward bounces an apple off his foot? In the book, what does it signal that Alice throws the uneaten apple into the trashcan? That apple is both a blunt metaphor and a muddled one.

What about Meyer’s language, her control of it? How many words does she waste? Most of them.41 How deeply do her metaphors delve, and how many meanings does each contain? (Not deep, and not many.) By comparison, let’s examine the introduction of another vampire, this time from Rice:

“But what happened to you?” asked the boy. “You said they bled you to cure you, and that must have nearly killed you.”

The vampire laughed. “Yes. It certainly did. But the vampire came back that night. You see, he wanted Pointe du Lac, my plantation.

“It was very late, after my sister had fallen asleep. I can remember it as if it were yesterday. He came in from the courtyard, opening the French doors without a sound, a tall fair-skinned man with a mass of blond hair and a graceful, almost feline quality to his movements. And gently, he draped a shawl over my sister’s eyes and lowered the wick of the lamp. She dozed there beside the basin and the cloth with which she’d bathed my forehead, and she never once stirred under that shawl until morning. But by that time I was greatly changed.”

“What was that change?” asked the boy.

The vampire sighed. He leaned back against the chair and looked at the walls. “At first I thought he was another doctor, or someone summoned by the family to try to reason with me. But this suspicion was removed at once. He stepped close to my bed and leaned down so that his face was in the lamplight, and I saw that he was no ordinary man at all. His gray eyes burned with an incandescence, and the long white hands which hung by his sides were not those of a human being. I think I knew everything in that instant, and all that he told me was only the aftermath. What I mean is, the moment I saw him, saw his extraordinary aura and knew him to be no creature I’d ever known, I was reduced to nothing. That ego which could not accept the presence of an extraordinary human being in its midst was crushed. All my conceptions, even my guilt and wish to die, seemed utterly unimportant. I completely forgot myself!” he said, now silently touching his breast with his fist. “I forgot myself totally. And in the same instant knew totally the meaning of possibility. From then on I experienced only increasing wonder. As he talked to me and told me of what I might become, of what his life had been and stood to be, my past shrank to embers. I saw my life as if I stood apart from it, the vanity, the self-serving, the constant fleeting from one petty annoyance after another, the lip service to God and the Virgin and a host of saints whose name filled my prayer books, none of whom made the slightest difference in a narrow, materialistic, and selfish existence. I saw my real gods…the gods of most men. Food, drink, and security in conformity. Cinders.”

In one sense, a comparison between these two texts is impossible. Rice taps into a collective neurosis; Meyer, into a kiddie pool of teen angst. They’re an order of magnitude apart. The clichés in Meyer’s passage are numerous; Rice invented the clichés, which had no existence before she wrote them, not even in Stoker.42 Meyer tells rather than shows, wasting her prose along the way. Two steps removed, Rice shows us through the notable mechanism of her characters telling us, and the prose of Interview is rich but tight; in Interview, it would be difficult to cut more than ten percent of her sentences. In Rice’s passage exists the angst of three hundred years; in Meyer’s, we must believe that decades- or centuries-old vampires have no greater strategy for blending into the human world than trying to fit in badly (so extremely badly) at the local high school.

The excuse that Meyer’s work is “young adult” while Rice’s is decidedly adult ignores the slippery and shifting nature of YA literature itself, whose boundaries shift and slither between maturity and youthfulness. It also suggests that YA writing should somehow be worse or dumber than writing for adults—something every enthusiastic childhood reader knows to be wrong. Rice is simply a more competent writer than is Meyer.43 Now, if Meyer is a derivative of Rice, what about James as a derivative of Meyer? Let’s examine the introduction between Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey:44

If this guy is over thirty, then I’m a monkey’s uncle. In a daze, I place my hand in his and we shake. As our fingers touch, I feel an odd exhilarating shiver run through me. I withdraw my hand hastily, embarrassed. Must be static. I blink rapidly, my eyelids matching my heart rate.

“Miss Kavanagh is indisposed, so she sent me. I hope you don’t mind, Mr. Grey.”

“And you are?” His voice is warm, possibly amused, but it’s difficult to tell from his impassive expression. He looks mildly interested but, above all, polite.

“Anastasia Steele. I’m studying English literature with Kate…um…Katherine…um…Miss Kavanagh, at WSU Vancouver.”

“I see,” he says simply. I think I see the ghost of a smile in his expression, but I’m not sure.

“Would you like to sit?” He waves me toward an L-shaped white leather seat.

His office is way too big for just one man. In front of the floor-to-ceiling windows, there’s a modern dark wood desk that six people could comfortably eat around. It matches the coffee table by the couch. Everything else is white—ceiling, floors, and walls, except for the wall by the door, where a mosaic of small paintings hang, thirty-six of them arranged in a square. They are exquisite—a series of mundane, forgotten objects painted in such precise detail they look like photographs. Displayed together, they are breathtaking.

“A local artist. Trouton,” says Grey when he catches my gaze.

“They’re lovely. Raising the ordinary to extraordinary,” I murmur, distracted by both him and the paintings. He cocks his head to one side and regards me intently.

“I couldn’t agree more, Miss Steele,” he replies, his voice soft, and for some inexplicable reason I find myself blushing.

Apart from the paintings, the rest of the office is cold, clean, and clinical. I wonder if it reflects the personality of the Adonis who sinks gracefully into one of the white leather chairs opposite me. I shake my head, disturbed at the direction of my thoughts, and retrieve Kate’s questions from my backpack. Next, I set up the digital recorder and am all fingers and thumbs, dropping it twice on the coffee table in front of me. Mr. Grey says nothing, waiting patiently—I hope—as I become increasingly embarrassed and flustered. When I pluck up the courage to look at him, he’s watching me, one hand relaxed in his lap and the other cupping his chin and trailing his long index finger along his lips. I think he’s trying to suppress a smile.

“S–sorry,” I stutter. “I’m not used to this.”

“Take all the time you need, Miss Steele,” he says.

“Do you mind if I record your answers?”

“After you’ve taken so much trouble to set up the recorder, you ask me now?”

I flush. He’s teasing me? I hope. I blink at him, unsure what to say, and I think he takes pity on me because he relents.

This establishing scene opens with a cliché, and the reader experiences much of the novel’s most important meeting as pure telling rather than showing. Not one, not two, but five qualifying verbs appear in this sequence: three thinks, one hope, and one sure with an “I’m not.” Does Anastasia give us any hint here, any whatsoever, that she might ever transcend her mousiness?45 Can we find in these words any sign that the slave may become the mistress? No, and indeed the long arc of Fifty Shades becomes a fix-the-broken-man story, rather than a tale fundamentally about the actualization of Anastasia—not only a problematic theme, but one which ultimately robs both characters of any legitimate agency. That lack of agency should, upon careful reading, not surprise us. These pages present us with a language equal to the protagonist, and even the sentences are weak. This was five hundred words which could be three hundred. As an experiment, let’s cut, add a trifle, and see what emerges:

Is this guy over thirty? In a daze, I shake his hand, and a shiver runs through me.

“Miss Kavanagh is indisposed,” I say, “so she sent me. I hope you don’t mind, Mr. Grey?”

“And you are?” he asks, his voice warm, his expression impassive.

“Anastasia Steele. I’m studying English literature with Kate—Katherine—Miss Kavanagh, at WSU Vancouver.”

“I see,” he says with the ghost of a smile. He waves me toward a white leather seat. “Would you like to sit?”

His office is too big for one man. In front of the floor-to-ceiling windows sits a gargantuan desk. It matches the modern coffee table, carved in dark mahogany. Everything else is white—ceiling, floors, and walls. Beside the door hangs a mosaic of small paintings, thirty-six arranged in a square, mundane but in precise, photographic detail.

Grey catches my gaze. ”A local artist. Trouton.”

“They’re lovely,” I say, “raising the ordinary to extraordinary.”

He cocks his head and regards me intently. “I couldn’t agree more, Miss Steele.”

I blush. He sinks into the chair opposite me.

Apart from the paintings, his office is cold, clean, and clinical. Does this reflect his personality? I shake my head, disturbed by my desire for him, and from my backpack I retrieve Kate’s questions. Next, I set up the digital recorder, dropping it twice on the coffee table.

Mr. Grey waits while I pluck up the courage to look at him, and I do, determined to see this encounter through. He watches me, one hand in his lap and the other cupping his chin. He trails his long index finger along his lips.

“Sorry,” I stutter. “I’m not used to this.”

“Take all the time you need, Miss Steele.”

“Do you mind if I record you?”

“After you’ve taken so much trouble to set up the recorder?”

I blink. He’s teasing me, surely?

Forty percent of the text has vanished, but the core and spirit remain. Yes, this would be a different book, a more honest one, a sharper one, in which we can already believe that Anastasia might prove a stronger protagonist. The qualifiers disappear. Not only were they lazy writing, but who wants to exist in that head for multiple volumes? Now Anastasia is at least determined to see this encounter through, though she doesn’t yet know it will last for so long.

I dissect most text this way, but especially fiction. Doing so isn’t foolproof—sometimes a few lazy pages in an early, key scene can still give way to an excellent story with rich ideas and a powerful voice. Sometimes. Rarely. In the vast majority, a few pages will proclaim the novel; write a few pages well, write a book well, and vice versa.

Lest you think I’m being unfair to James or have no appreciation for erotica, let’s return to Rice, not to her Vampire Chronicles but to a later work, The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty. Let us join the Prince right after he has stormed the castle, claimed the Beauty, and awakened the King and all the cursed servants:

The King glanced up very quickly to accept the Prince’s commands and with unfailing courtesy he backed out of the doorway.

The Prince turned his full attention to Beauty.

Lifting a napkin he wiped at her tears. She kept her hands obediently on her thighs, exposing her sex, and he observed that she did not try to hide her stiff little pink nipples with her arms and he approved of this.

“Now don’t be frightened,” he said to her softly, feeding a little on her trembling mouth again, and then slapping her breasts so they shivered lightly. “I could be old and ugly.”

“Ah, but then I could feel sorry for you,” she said in a sweet, tremulous voice.

He laughed. “I’m going to punish you for that,” he said to her tenderly. “But now and then just a little very ladylike impertinence is amusing.”

Rice communicates a great deal with these lines. The King realizes he is addressing the great-grandson of the emperor he once served—at once we understand Rice’s homoerotic world, where sexual servitude between royal lines is a norm—and he yields. The submissiveness of Beauty, even from these early scenes, is a purer and more intensive submission than we see from Anastasia at any point in Fifty Shades, but immediately it contains a hint of Beauty’s own arc: “Ah, but then I could feel sorry for you.” That impertinence carries resistance, a promise of growth and strength, a hint at the fundamental and real tension in Rice’s erotica—in other words, in a tale otherwise intended to titillate, the story promises real if subtle conflict.

Is the prose perfect? No. Rice’s language is more active and masterful than James’s, though the Beauty series uses it in less-inventive ways than does Interview. Here, Rice abuses the word little, for example. In the interest of impartiality, let’s give these one hundred fifty words from Beauty the same treatment as those from Fifty Shades:

The King glanced up to accept the Prince’s commands and, with unfailing courtesy, he backed out of the doorway. The Prince turned his full attention to Beauty.

Lifting a napkin he wiped her tears. She kept her hands on her thighs, exposing her sex, revealing her stiff, pink, tiny nipples. He approved of this.

“Now don’t be frightened,” he said softly, feeding on her trembling mouth again, then slapping her breasts so they shivered. “I could be old and ugly.”

“Ah, but then I could feel sorry for you,” she said in a sweet, tremulous voice.

He laughed tenderly. “I’m going to punish you for that. But now and then a ladylike impertinence is amusing.”

Eighteen percent gone, without shaving any meaning from these lines, less than half the superfluousness of James’s writing. Though this passage is short, we would find the rest of Sleeping Beauty to be similarly rich and concise. More importantly, though, Rice exhibits throughout her catalogue an awareness of meaning in imagery, subtle foreshadowing, and richness that both James and Meyer lack. She’s simply better with language and narrative.

And what else is fiction but language and narrative? Why do we accept anything less than excellence in writing? We don’t watch the Olympics to see sort-of-good athletes, we don’t go to the symphony to hear kind-of-okay musicians, so why do we consume books with halfway-all-right words? I recognize that mediocrity exists in the other arts too,46 but that is because the culture of bias extends now across the human experience.

In 2012, the good news was that the fervor over Fifty Shades of Grey sparked a renewed interest in Rice’s Sleeping Beauty Series. Plume books printed 350,000 copies of Beauty, which I’m certain is more than sold in the 1980s.47 Not bad, Anne, but by 2015 the Fifty Shades series had sold more than 125 million copies worldwide, more than a hundred times the volume of Rice’s erotic collection. Yet Rice’s books are objectively, by almost every measure, the better books—the language is richer, the themes and layers of meaning much deeper, the arc more satisfying, and even the erotica better written and more tantalizing. Examining her career as a whole, Rice exceeds her copycats, so why would Beauty not outsell Fifty Shades? One can argue, of course, that Rice’s books were first published in the buttoned-down ’80s, and they were never allowed to shine, but books sometimes get second lives, and for Fifty Shades’ 125 million copies to generate only 350,000 copies’ worth of interest in Beauty

Well, that’s simply irrational. It’s as if there’s a culture of bias which steers us toward mediocrity.

The Culture of Bias, Mediocrity, and the Lie of Five Stars

Mediocre books, even awful books, often outsell great books. This is regardless of the so-called genre.

Am I being unfair? Can we reduce the overwhelming popularity of the rather badly written Fifty Shades of Grey to preference, rather than to bias? It’s logically inconsistent to argue that 125 million rational readers, whose preference is for erotica, chose Fifty Shades over obviously better works, like Sleeping Beauty. Is it that the public merely prefers “realism,” set in a modern era, without supernatural trappings or the gloss of fairytales? Obviously not, since Meyer’s supernatural, fairytale-like novels (even marketed with that Snow White-like apple on the cover) have sold roughly the same number of copies, worldwide, as James’s.48 Clearly, there is in our culture of bias a tendency to shift us toward a popularity of the lowest common denominator, and this contributes to or perhaps creates the possibility for books like Fifty Shades to rise to meteoric success while a resurrected collection like Beauty only receives the marketing engine required to move a mere hundreds of thousands.49

People have a limited capacity for choice. Availability bias, recency effect, spacing effect, suggestibility—these and other cognitive biases make choosing what is popular the easy choice, and in a culture of bias, the popular choice will almost certainly be mediocre, if not bad. The average brick-and-mortar Barnes & Noble gives a shopper so many choices that, in the interest of time, he or she might fall victim to a less-is-better effect, a list-length effect, or sheer marketing overload. Without strategies to guide us, and the discipline to check our own tendencies, too many choices overwhelm us. In the interest of saving brain capacity, we select what’s hot now, what’s sold most aggressively, or what “everyone else is talking about,” as if “everyone else” was a trustworthy authority.

In issues of nutrition or physical training, it is easier to accept that most people have little idea what they’re talking about, even more so in medicine or architecture; yet in the literary world, our cousin’s best friend’s teacher’s sister babbles on about Fifty Shades, adds to the noise-signal problem of what-to-read, and the buzz grows to an unstoppable tidal wave. It becomes easier, for most readers, to join the wave. The nutritional equivalent is the Starbuck’s pumpkin-spice latte—you know you shouldn’t order it, but everyone else is, so why not?50

Yet as I’ve already posited, overcoming our own biases and the biases of our society, as a whole, takes real work. As a culture, we would need to overwhelmingly value smart words over dumb ones, intelligent themes over lazy ones, careful writing over sloppy, and so on. Reading well, however, is like physical exercise: extremely unpleasant at first, then much easier and more satisfying as practice develops. It is much better, on the whole, to be in shape than out of shape. It is much better, as a whole, to read well than read shit. Yet here we are, a society of people who more or less do little but read the literary equivalent of that pumpkin-spice latte.

A culture of reader bias has a negative effect on writers, because the opinions of readers are these days so public, and because those opinions are often connected with ratings systems which inadvertently harm a book’s sales. The rating systems reflect the mediocre tide. This culture also hurts readers, because it distorts the value of books. This shows up most often in five-star systems and, because Amazon is the biggest bookseller on Earth, bias shows up in the ratings of Amazon’s offerings more than anywhere else.

If an objectively well-written book, with rich language and difficult but valuable themes, presents too much of a challenge to too many readers, they’ll give it three stars, two stars, one star. If their biases are disguised as preferences, they’ll give any book outside their comfort zone three stars, two stars, one star.51 If any book offends their sensibilities, they won’t judge it by its quality but by their emotional response to it, giving it three stars, two stars, one star.

Kim Stanley Robinson is arguably one of the most important authors of the last half century.52 One of the most notable works of science fiction in the last ten years has been his 2312. Its rating on Amazon is 3.5 stars. Its readers give it three stars for being “a little bit boring” or having “a challenging style at times.” One author calls it a “Good character driven story,” proceeds to miss the novel’s entire point, and still gives it three stars. Another called it, “A lot to read,” three stars. A two-star review labels it, “A little too quirky.” Robinson paints us a path to a grand human future, and one critic calls it, “Lame,” one star. Heaven help us.

As they say these days, “I can’t even.”

By comparison, Fifty Shades of Grey has an average of four stars. While James definitely takes her lumps from reviewers,53 she earns reviews like these: “It’s awful, but oh so addicting,” four stars; “50 shades of awesomeness,” five stars; “Trashy guilty pleasure,” four stars; and “interesting,” four stars. As an average across all her reviews, E.L. James beats out Kim Stanley Robinson by 12.5% in terms of ratings. I can scarcely make this clearer: an author who gives us irresponsible, badly informed BDSM fantasies written with lazy prose and poor character development beats one of the most important futurists of all time in the ratings game. My guess is that she outsells him, too, by a lot.

Many authors depend on the rating system for marketing, for exposure, and for sales. Yet, because of the culture of bias, the five-star rating system is toxic. There is no such thing as a five-star book (or a book which is defined by any other number of stars); there are only the accumulated noises of an entire biased system, expressed in yellow stars.

A Takeaway and Larger Social Ills

Reader bias is simply a subset of consumer bias; consumer bias, merely a strain of the greater culture of bias. Perhaps, in the end, all this discussion of books, words, vampires, science fiction, Kim Stanley Robinson, and bad BDSM advice really does point to something much bigger than five-star reviews and book sales. It’s no great stretch to connect books and reading with a society’s overall education, intelligence, and thoughtfulness. As a whole, if our society’s popular-reading habits, the quality and intelligence of our book-rating systems, and our choices in high-volume bestsellers are any indication, our society might be in trouble.

I don’t know how to solve society’s ills. I do have some ideas for how to cure our reading ills:

  • Appeal to Writers — Fellow writers, please be better writers. Be the best writer you can be, and try to define how good your writing is by standards other than how popularly appealing it happens to be. If you haven’t already, study the greats, and presume them to be great until your careful study shows you otherwise. No matter what your genre happens to be, or what you think you like to read, please read the classics and the major award winners, read outside your comfort zone, and let that reading inform your own work. As I hope I have shown, popular is not necessarily good. Have something important to say. You, yourself, should read more intelligently, broadly, and critically. Learn to use language excellently. All of us, collectively, should challenge readers to rise to the highest level of our skill and, indeed, to the highest level of theirs.
  • Support K–12 Schools — Drop any libertarian fantasies that schools are only the concern of parents and their children, and should be paid for only by those constituents or only by private dollars. Even our system of funding public schools through property taxes is, was, and has always been grossly misguided because it funds some schools so well, while funding others not at all. As Thomas Jefferson knew, schools are the cornerstones of society. All of us, through our taxes, volunteerism, and votes, must support an educational system which works for all. What I mean by this is schools which serve every child, from the richest to the poorest, equally and well. Included in this education must be a strong foundation in reading and literature, primarily in English, but with ample opportunity to study, learn, and read in other languages. As a democracy (or if you insist, a representational republic), we are only as strong as the least-educated segments of our population.
  • Support University Reform — The university system has been under a forty-year-long siege of privatization, and we must reverse this. For reasons similar to K–12 education, the system must serve this entire nation, not only its moneyed elites. Programs in the humanities and arts, including English and literature programs, must be strengthened, made more diverse, and appeal to the brightest and best students. Inasmuch as we bolster education and research in the Sciences, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, so too we need the Arts and Humanities—not STEM, but STEAM or THAMES.54 University admission must be extremely competitive, but free to the best students, and inexpensive to everyone else who qualifies. We should seriously consider strengthening our nation’s vocational programs, where vocation includes technology training; coders don’t need masters degrees in computer science, but nor do they need to be paying $25,000 or more for dubious one-year private programs.
  • Do Away with Popular Rating Systems for Books, Films, and Other Arts — As much as people may hate gatekeepers, as much as our society rails against them, and as much as they once quashed diverse voices, they did (and still do) serve important functions. They offer historical and comparative contexts which most people simply don’t possess, as well as a degree of objectivity about the complexity, richness, and competency of art, including literature. While I do not defend the worst aspects of such a system, I do defend the value of trained critics, reviewers, publishers, editors, and academics. While we may be too committed to the five-star popular rating system to completely jettison it, I strongly encourage Amazon and other “distribution gateways”55 to develop a hybrid system. The system will work better, too, if there is more nuance in it. A book may be rated by the general public on “look and design,” “entertainment value,” or any number of other qualities, but this would always be balanced against “ratings” by a handful of certified reviewers, or even professional critics. Critics would themselves be beholden to a professional body, one which held them to high standards and prevented abuses. We have too few now—a handful of newspapers and journals, a smattering of powerful blogs, Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, and not much else. An objectively terrible book should never see an overall five-star rating; an objectively excellent book should never see a two-star rating, much less a one, and reader preferences should not be the end all and be all of books’ ratings.

“I found this book to be slow and tedious,” writes one reviewer of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s TaleAnother writes, “I enjoyed this book until the ending, which leaves the reader in limbo,” two stars; a third writes, “Very underwhelming. Just seemed to end in the middle of the story,” two stars. When reviews like that carry any weight against the likes of Atwood, we’ve already fallen a long, long way indeed, and the village idiots are minding the bookstore, ripping out all the pages they don’t like.

Let us recognize the damage done by the culture of bias, and let us do everything we can to overcome it.

Science Fiction and the Personal-Political

The political in science fiction has been central since its beginning.

Politics in fiction today is a touchy subject1, but one still worth discussing. In opening, I wish to posit three points about it, especially in speculative fiction.

First, our political truths are important and diverse, and since fiction is the lie through which society discusses uncomfortable truths,2 we had best be able to express our political realities through it. Second, as many other writers and rhetoricians have argued, the concept of apolitical fiction is a myth; even the absence of political content is, almost invariably, political. Third, there really is no such thing as message fiction, as we tend to recognize it; there is only poor writing and strong writing, as always.

The political has always been part of science fiction. It has been there since Shelley's Frankenstein.
Frontispiece to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein.

If these premises are true, then (1) there is ethical reason to grapple with political themes, as they occur naturally in our writing; and (2), it isn’t possible to avoid these themes, so we may as well be deliberate about them.

Writing is an unavoidably political act. Even a grocery list, which many believe is for no one but themselves,3 is political. Where do you shop: Whole Foods, Walmart, or your local farmer’s market? Are you buying organic or conventional? Any palm oil in your groceries? How much are your shopping choices rote habit, with little reflection on the impacts they make upon the rest of society?

Writing establishes perceptions and reinforces behaviors, including political behaviors; even a shopping list does this.

Before words enter publication, writing is a personal act which may reflect personal feelings about political things. For many, writing is a solitary undertaking, but one which can translate the inner world of one person’s psyche to the minds of others—sometimes millions of others. Words produced for public consumption, while they may feel personal to the writer, are inherently political—a species of telepathy which passes from the individual to the community, one which can and does transmit political sentiment.

Conceptually, the personal and the political already share a stronger relationship than we might at first assume, and that which is personal-political cannot help but emerge through writing. To illustrate this, I intend to cover the following territory:

First, I’ll explore the tenuous barriers between what we call personal and what we label public or political; second, I’ll examine writing and storytelling as personal acts, ones which necessarily grow political at the moment of publication; and third, I’ll dissect speculative fiction specifically, especially science fiction, and its relationship to political discourse.

The Personal, Private, Public, and Political

My dictionary defines political as “relating to the government or public affairs…” For writing to be political, it needn’t discuss the current President, the votes of Congress, or a state election—although it might. A relation to public affairs is enough. Now, how might we delineate public affairs from private ones?

To begin, and for reasons which should become obvious, let’s also equate the private with the personal. My trusty dictionary defines personal as “of or concerning one’s private life, relationships, and emotions.” To a degree, we may thus use the words private and personal interchangeably, but this text will prefer the word personal when possible.

The emotional need for privacy is powerful. Individually and culturally, we continually construct personal-private boundaries, both psychological and physical. We rightly defend our privacy and, in the United States, the Fourth Amendment exists to protect it. Furthermore, the Fourth Amendment’s protections constrain the state, which can never secure absolute control so long as its citizens retain some privacy, a point underscored by George Orwell.4 The mere fight for privacy, or declaring something personal, is counterintuitively also a publicly political act. The personal is in this sense logically political.

Perhaps worryingly, this implies also that nothing can be purely private, but all which is political and all which is personal occupy a spectrum. This personal-political spectrum shifts endlessly, according to culturally arbitrary standards.

For example, what people do in the bedroom is personal, is it not? To wit, in 2003 the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated criminal sodomy laws in all fifty states, but a dozen state jurisdictions still outlaw it, including Alabama. In the Yellowhammer State, boinking a partner in the ass is by legal definition an act of public concern, subject to political discourse, and police regularly cite those laws to make unconstitutional arrests. In seventeen states, broadly, homosexual sex is still illegal—SCoTUS be damned—a clear declaration that socially rightwing interests still exercise real power over such personal affairs.5

Liberal thinkers, too, generally recognize thresholds beyond which sex loses its private quality and enters public-political concern: Bring a child into the act, and all fifty states and most of the rest of the world rightly take umbrage. (Though it is still possible throughout much of the United States for children to marry young,6 sometimes after obvious statutory rape, thus absolving the rapist in the eyes of the law.)7 To damage children is to damage their families and communities, to damage their education, to damage their futures—and ultimately to damage all of society; the argument for imposing on private matters between adults and children is a compelling one. No threshold of privacy, we would hope, justifies overt violence against the young.

Public concern with the personal doesn’t stop at sex, of course. Pro-choice advocates argue the abortion decision lies between a woman and her doctor; pro-lifers disagree, and either way the topic remains as politicized as any can be. So long as members of a society contest them, the most personal of acts make the leap to political in a mere twinkling.

Similarly, what you take into your body is no one’s business but yours, unless the law establishes controls for your substance of choice. My local pharmacy scans my ID into its system every time I purchase Sudafed—someone, somewhere can hypothesize that I suffer from hay fever or, if I buy enough pseudoephedrine, that I might be cooking methamphetamines. For this reason, the state tracks these transactions, but what about logging purchases of birth control, mood stabilizers, or medications for “pre-existing” conditions? Under federal and state laws, most such information is “private,” but in today’s world of hackers, partisan politics, corporate rights, and commercial privatization (ironically named, for an ongoing threat to personal privacy), how easy is it to imagine the publication and politicization of data we consider today to be protected?

The dystopian phantasmagorias abound.

In forty-two of the U.S. states and most countries, using pot in one’s home is due cause for the state to batter down your door and incarcerate you; if the current Attorney General has his way, citizens of those eight states will once more be subject to arrest,8 and how many will already be on record as pot users? Well-intentioned regulations sometimes turn to bad ends.9

Conversely, a dearth of state regulation may also elevate the personal into the political. In 2017 the average wage gap—unequal pay for equal work—between women and men is 21¢ for every dollar.10 For many women and their allies, their personal experience of lost earnings, and disparate opportunity, becomes a political effort to promote real change. The disparities are even greater for people of color.

Is a uterus public or personal? Is your relationship with a doctor, or indeed is your health, your concern? Are the affairs of multinational corporations private? This and a legion of other questions define the personal-political landscape, a complex and ever-evolving conversation (or shouting match, or fistfight, or gun battle).

We may not feel the personal is political until it’s our life being regulated, repressed, or attacked by public policy. This is privilege—some of us have more of it than others. Yet the threat of the political becoming personal is omnipresent for everyone, no matter our station. “First they came…”11 for everyone but me.

Though as important today as ever, these ideas are nothing new. The Personal Is Political12—in 1970, Carol Hanisch wrote, “One of the first things we discover… is that personal problems are political problems. There are no personal solutions… There is only collective action for a collective solution.”

Let’s also reverse that: The Political Is Personal, a concept important in fiction writing. We tell stories through points of view, through the senses and thoughts of our characters, individuals who may fight the impositions made upon them by the politics of their world and culture. As writers, we practice a deeply personal process, but if we’re honest then the public and political nature of reading never strays far from our minds, particularly if we write for public consumption. If we’re conscientious writers, we recognize that each character we write embodies a political reality, and we take some responsibility for it.

Returning to that grocery list: Its every item reinforces or challenges the political landscape, and though there may be such a thing as an innocent writer,13 there is never innocent writing. Never neutral, words reflect either a memory or a vision, both of which impact our actions in the present and spread beyond us to nudge the culture in which we live—for the greater good, or by reinforcing systems of might-makes-right or power for power’s sake.

The Case of the Domestic

Much of postmodern and contemporary literature deals with the domestic—a specific form of the personal and private. We might consider Bob Shacochis’s model for a “literature of political experience” or a “literature of domestic experience.”14 This is a variation on the personal-political, where the domestic also reflects finer layers of freedom and control. Since the patriarchies of the Greeks and Romans, the domestic has always been a microcosm of the larger structures of society; so as the emperor was the head of society, the paterfamilias was the head of the household. That structure held absolute until the modern era, and the paroxysms which today shake global society tell us that in many ways this patriarchy continues to exert itself. The personal-political continues to unfold intimately in people’s lives, these days more varied and somewhat less hierarchical than in eras past, at least in some households—for the better, in my opinion, though we have a long way to go.

In the United States, perhaps the first great rivening of the “American domestic” by state powers occurred during the Civil War. Brothers fighting brothers, yes, but also the freeing of slaves which, to the minds of many a land-holding white, was in some portion the division their family, even the intrusion on it by the state and by political forces. For both the Union and Confederacy, the political became personal indeed.

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin certainly did not start the Civil War—even if Lincoln told her, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” But its characters, including slaves and slave owners, and their familial and delicate relationships, illustrated the personal nature of the politics of slavery.15 Uncle Tom’s Cabin certainly did influence Northern thinking, and more importantly its message impacted generations of Americans afterward, strengthening anti-slavery sentiment in our culture even after the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment.

In her remarkable essay, “The Thoreau Problem”, Rebecca Solnit writes, “If [Thoreau] went to jail to demonstrate his commitment to the freedom of others [slaves specifically], he went to the berries to exercise his own recovered freedom, the liberty to do whatever he wished, and the evidence in all his writing is that he very often wished to pick berries.”16 She refers to the innate strain between the domestic Thoreau of Walden17 and the communitarian Thoreau of Civil Disobedience18 Solnit gracefully argues that to fight for the freedom of others is the only way to guarantee our own freedom, and fighting often begins with speaking up—or writing down the truth, for those of us who write. Fighting for others is not a constraint on our freedom, but a necessary condition for a free society. To retain our personal freedoms, goes the argument, we must at times engage politics and public life.

The personal and political are cyclical.

Mohsin Hamid, the celebrated British Pakistani writer, observed, “Politics is shaped by people. And people, sometimes, are shaped by the fiction they read.”19 Thus writing, too, is a cyclical act which engages politics and public life: We influence others through our writing, and are influenced by our reading. What’s more, writing can politicize independently of the author, conscripted by readers into political service, with or without the author’s permission.

This is unavoidable, and not always for the best. Irresponsible writing, even if produced for “entertainment,” can effect terrible outcomes. I refer you Umberto Eco’s excellent analysis of Eugène Sue’s The Wandering Jew, and how it escaped Sue to become The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.20 What began as flaccid amusement ended by justifying, in the minds of Adolph Hitler and his supporters, the extermination of as many as six million Jews. It became the most sinister kind of propaganda.21 On this example alone, let no one ever declare that simple fictions cannot spur political outcomes.

Also invoking The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Francine Prose argues pessimistically that, throughout the decades, fiction has mostly darkened politics:

Perhaps the clearest case of literature effecting political change is that of Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle. Its disgusting portrait of the meatpacking industry rapidly led to the passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act. So what if Sinclair had hoped that his work would end the oppressive conditions under which industry workers labored rather than merely improving the quality of the protein on middle-class tables?22

Though bleak, neither The Jungle nor The Wandering Jew suggest all writing is fundamentally equivalent to propaganda. While each story may privilege one idea or another, one way of life or another, it does not follow that every example is agitprop. Lies require distinct intentionality.23 Still, politicizing forces can twist fiction to any purpose (as with The Wandering Jew), irrespective of an author’s desires (as with The Jungle), and these days disinformation is all too common.24 

Privilege and the Personal-Political in Writing

What is the influence of privilege on our perceptions of literature? My ever-handy dictionary defines privilege as “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.” Positions of privilege allow some readers to imagine such a thing as non-political or apolitical writing, perhaps especially in fiction. Ignorantly or willfully, privilege offers its bearer the power to ignore social subtexts. It is possible, too, that blindness to subtexts can also lie with the oppressed—a different issue, and an understandable one, stemming from persistently imposed narratives about one’s own race, gender, or background. My focus here will be on the former, it being the primary cause of the latter.

For example, one might enjoy Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as an intelligent, witty tale of tangled romance, a prototype for all romances since, whose enduring theme has always been love conquers all. 

Pride and Prejudice tells of the fraught but inevitable courtship between Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet—to this day, still sentimental beach reading—but its more important subtexts swim just beneath the surface, a shark out in the literary surf. Pride and Prejudice is, far more importantly, a damning commentary on the socioeconomic oppression of women, certainly during Austen’s time, and by extension today. A stricter reading tells us not only that love does not conquer all, but that love is a poor substitute for emancipation and personal empowerment.

The book’s plot rests on the legal realities of nineteenth-century England and the entailing of property, which Austen emphasized as well in Sense and Sensibility. Mr. Benet’s daughters could not inherit, not even if he desired it. If unmarried at his death, Elizabeth and her four sisters would become destitute, homeless, and anathema. The story’s courtship, proposals, and romance occur not with entailing as the backdrop, but solely because of it. The romantic misadventures overlay a tapestry of insurmountable legal constraint, oppression, and sexual politics. The personal narrative of Pride and Prejudice contains an outcry for public reform which, once perceived, dominates it.

Without the constraints of entailing, imagine the plot: Darcy is irrelevant by chapter nine. Lizzy bides her time and, after inheriting a fortune, the smart, capable, witty woman could have leveraged her own means and done anything she liked—man optional—using her astute skills of social observation to work the markets of an industrializing England. I’d purchase that story.

Pride and Prejudice was a cry for women’s agency a century before suffrage. So much for “sentimental beach reading.”

The romantics and gothics wrote narratives ripe with sociopolitical subtext. In Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, the character of Catherine Earnshaw withers (wuthers?), her true nature crushed by sociocultural pressure. Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of the most complex stories ever told, multilayered and the forerunner of modern science fiction—as famous for its rejection of nineteenth-century social norms as for its visionary speculations on life and death. Stoker’s Dracula brims with commentary about emerging industrialism, empowered femininity and its suppression, homosexuality, and capitalism—all impossible for Stoker to express publicly, in his era, without the mask of fiction. These were never mere entertainments, fluffy stories of tragic romance, mad scientists, and creatures of the night.

These were powerful personal-political statements.

Similarly, the great works of modernist literature, like them or hate them, emerged from personal-political themes. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, or Nabokov; Woolf, Mansfield, or Stein—none were ever anything but political in their themes, whether overtly or in terms of personal identity. Moreover, their politics could be complex and difficult to pigeonhole.25 We should be reminded today, in our era of polarized politics, that political thinking can and perhaps should be viewed through more nuanced lenses.

What good are writers if they can’t parse nuance?26 Few if any can pull every meaning from every word in every work, even in their own, but shouldn’t we who write at least try?

The personal-political quality of contemporary fiction is no less present or powerful than it was for the romantics or the modernists. Sometimes graceful (re: Ondaatje),27 sometimes clumsy (re: Franzen),28 today’s literature is perhaps more concerned with identity politics and domesticity than were its forebears, but perhaps not; identity politics has been the politics of the last century, first blindingly white and now increasingly rainbow. (Do identity politics actually belong to a more complete schema called civil rights?) Identity politics today are emblematic of contemporary literature, underscoring literature’s unavoidably political nature.29

Still, I can hear the affirmed escapists asking, “But what about the real beach reading? What about books that are just for fun?”

The mainstream fiction? Today’s romances? Can’t we just have a frivolous read, without all the weighty and responsible thematics?

Sorry, no. We may read any story for escapism, but we must disable our inner critic if we’re to pretend it’s apolitical.

Does any given bodice-ripper30 reinforce or challenge mores of sex, gender, and race? Does it exclude the disempowered or promote cultural diversity, repeating tropes comforting to WASPy readers in suburban America but disempowering to urban women, minorities, or even men? Does it reinforce stalking behavior and patterns of abuse in relationships31—never mind Fifty Shades of Grey?32 Embedded in the genre is the need to resolve on the upbeat—love always triumphs—which often necessitates glossing over or stopping short of any darker undertones.

Before I’m accused of unfairly needling a genre outside my own, I refer you to Jackie C. Horne’s excellent discussion of the romance genre and politics following the 2016 Presidential election.33 Truly, we are capable of ignoring personal-political themes in any writing only when they are so familiar to us as to be invisible.

What about whodunits and mysteries?

Notice the preponderance of youthful, well-to-do, attractive, white women-as-victims in twentieth- and twenty-first-century thrillers? The detectives leap to help them or to uncover their murderers, no matter the costs. But black women, old women, disfigured women, cat ladies? The detectives rarely put in overtime for them.

Young, beautiful, white women are simply too valuable a commodity, and psycho-killers can’t be allowed to run about, willy-nilly, murdering them. Everyone else, though? Well, we’ll get to those murders if we have the time—

“Missing white-woman syndrome” exists in literature as much as it does in real life.34 But does fiction reflect life, or life reflect fiction?35

Even in science fiction, we have The Expanse36—Detective Miller has seen a lot of bad shit go down, out there on Ceres, but wow does he go out of his way for a young, rich, and beautiful Claire Mao. The future, it appears, will not be much different than the present. But at least Mao isn’t white—progress!37

The point here is this: Writers often reinforce society’s existing narratives, even when they enjoy more license than most to alter the narrative. “Ils doivent envisager qu’une grande responsabilité est la suite inséparable d’un grand pouvoir.”—They must consider that great responsibility follows inseparably from great power.38

Here’s the truth—consciously political fiction can be excellent fiction, despite rumors to the contrary.

In mainstream fiction, politics abound. Toward the end of his life, Michael Crichton became overtly rightwing, but political themes run throughout his many novels, including the early works, the ones before he started writing “message fiction.”39 Stephen King, these days vocally leftwing, infused even his early books with underlying personal-political messages—all to excellent effect. J.K. Rowling, Danielle Steele, Jackie Collins, Dean Koontz, Paulo Coelho, James Patterson, C.S. Lewis, Clive Cussler, Anne Rice, Ian Fleming, or Tom Clancy—each has written through a lens which reinforced or challenged existing power structures, and each text may be reinterpreted today around personal-political themes. Each author also still counts among the best-selling of all time.

Despite this, in fiction writing—literary and genre, if indeed these are separate pursuits—the word political often draws disdain, as if entertainment must necessarily be apolitical. As if it can be. If our grocery lists can’t avoid the political, what hope does our fiction have?

The Personal-Political in Speculative Fiction

More than all fiction as a whole, science fiction expresses explicit wishes for reality to be other than as it is, or to provide warnings about what it might become.

In society, expressed desires for significant change—for new social orders, for different day-to-day pursuits, for new family structures, for new genetics, for new culture-changing technologies—are inherently political expressions. Science fiction is fundamentally political in its outlook. By comparison, at first glance no genre could be more escapist than fantasy, but everything we might suggest about science fiction and its relationship to the personal-political goes doubly for fantasy. With sufficient vision, many excellently imagined fantasies could one day, in some place, in some fashion become reality. Arthur C. Clarke’s assertion that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”40 is by now cliché, and also as true as ever in one iteration or another, despite shaky arguments to the contrary.41

Thus all speculative fiction—both science fiction and fantasy—possesses a deeply personal-political quality. Speculation in literature has been with us for an extremely long time, and it has always served the purposes of imagining a different society.

Like other students of science fiction’s history, I place Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein42 as its first true novel, but many prototypes to science fiction predated it. They include One Thousand and One Nights,43 the Theologus Autodidactus,44 or even Utopia.45 Traditional stories and early literature from Japan, China, Greece, Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, and others carried the seeds not only of technological but also of social speculation. In almost every prototypical science-fiction story, an imaginative new technology intersects an extant society to alter it, or is presented as lifting society from some earlier, primitive state; rare is the tale which imagines new technologies that merely ossify an existing culture. “Conservative science fiction” is almost an oxymoron—almost.

With few exceptions, nearly every prototype of science fiction emphasized a sociopolitical attitude which today we would recognize as libertine, at one extreme, or liberal at the other. This isn’t strictly true, of course, and not all aspects of human existence receive the same treatment. For example, More’s Utopia was a carefully cushioned critique of Henry VIII, envisioning a non-hierarchical if not quite anarchical society which presaged much of Marxist thought. On at least one point, however, More reinforced the conventions of the Anglican church, imagining stringent and regressive rules for marriage, along with repressive constraints on women. Yet, by and large, every premodern storytelling tradition tended to imagine freer, more egalitarian, more expressive societies. Perhaps this is natural, given that nearly every pre-Enlightenment culture was, by most of today’s measures, an awful place to live for the masses—imagination was their only reprieve.

Since Frankenstein, the politics of speculative fiction have become more involved, more nuanced, and in a few cases more conservative. This is, again, perhaps natural. The Enlightenment has altered the entire globe, emphasizing humanism and secularism, destroying monarchies and, in most places, weakening religion’s hold on political affairs if not outright eliminating its institutional role. These changes, less than three hundred years old and by no means assured of continuance, still threaten the core conservative and fundamentalist beliefs of many hundreds of millions of people. In some sense, the extremisms which confront us today are the pushback against a global, secular society which has still left a great many people disenfranchised, even if temporarily. As those disenfranchised express their personal-political realities, we should expect a wide variety of protests, but it should not surprise us to see the emergence of science-fiction and fantasy literatures which espouse or reinforce conservative ideologies which oppress women, minorities, or those who “deviate” from some normal while hurting no one.46

Ayn Rand was the best known, and perhaps the first, science-fiction writer to reject the rise of post-War liberalism. In addition to some decidedly hyper-conservative views on what constituted “natural” behavior,47 she confused Stalinism with Marxism, developed a “philosophy” which attempted to strip all questions of morality from the concept of greed, and wrote The Fountainhead48 and Atlas Shrugged49. Rand arrived in the United States at the impressionable age of twenty-one, shortly after Lenin’s death and about a decade before Stalin solidified his power. Prior to then, while she had derided the Bolsheviks, she had been an ardent supporter of the socialist Alexander Kerensky, whose philosophy was in almost every way opposite of Rand’s later Objectivism. By the time Stalinism had perverted Marxist and Leninist thought, Kerensky was in exile.

In 1938, Rand wrote to Kerensky, when they were both in the United States. Even then she expressed that Kerensky might have provided a better foundation—better than Lenin’s—for what would become the Soviet Union. I know of no evidence that Kerensky ever replied.

This position deserves its own essay but, for purposes of this discussion, I maintain that Rand’s vitriolic opposition to collectivist ideals—going so far as to glamorize selfishness—arose out of deep personal disappointment rather than strong philosophical foundations. But, be that as it may, both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are unequivocally novels of speculative fiction, and their combined influence on the consciousness of contemporary America can scarcely be overstated. She codified Objectivism after reaching meteoric popularity with Atlas Shrugged and, without that success, it’s unlikely her so-called philosophy would have found much traction in American minds. Between 1960 and the Republican Revolution of 1994, Objectivism became the underlying philosophy of American conservatism because of two works of science fiction.

Also a topic for another time, but it naturally follows: science fiction, gone wrong, gave us Trump.50

Today’s conservatism-of-selfishness simply could not have arisen without Ayn Rand’s science fiction. She strongly opposed any currents of collectivism or socialism in American life, and she inspired legions of ardent supporters who embraced the idea that their selfishness might actually be a moral virtue. With some irony, just as Utopia suggested a liberal philosophy which now appears offensively conservative with regard to women’s roles and rights, Objectivism meets every contemporary conservative fantasy except with regards to religion; Rand herself was an atheist. Too bad, religious right, she won’t be meeting you in Heaven.

What Would Objectivist Jesus Do™, anyway?

For considerate students of the Bible,51 its text is quite clear on the subject of greed,52 and secular arguments that greediness is moral or amoral are pretty thin too.53 Can we imagine a day when “greed is good” philosophies finally lose their sheen? When greed itself may be counted amongst the gravest of social offenses?

Other forms of science fiction have developed either in lockstep with conservative sociopolitical forces, or have influenced it to some extent. H.G. Wells’s “The Land Ironclads”54 may have been the first true prototype for contemporary military science fiction, but it was no doubt Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers55 which cemented the sub-genre, establishing an odd collection of tropes which could at once be socially libertine while also evoking a sociopolitical universe which was a reflection of the growing military-industrial complex of the Cold War and a wish for meritocratic democracies more Roman or Spartan than American.

Thus Heinlein laid a strange foundation for military science fiction which was neither leftwing nor right, and as hard to pin down politically as the author was himself. During his lifetime, Heinlein espoused ideas both socialist and rigidly libertarian. Some have argued that Heinlein drifted, before his death, from the liberal to the conservative.56 Yet he was more fascinating and multifaceted than this, too interesting for the cliché of the young liberal turned crusty conservative. Early in his career, he gave us Stranger in a Strange Land57 and Starship Troopers; later, Friday58 and I Will Fear No Evil.59 Each contains ideas politically liberal and conservative, as well as invariably libertine. Like Gertrude Stein, Heinlein defied categories.

Free thinkers, perhaps? Confused souls? You decide.

Military science fiction has since diverged into extremes as far right as Ender’s Game60—whose subtexts are deeply totalitarian, militaristic, and xenophobic (perhaps stemming from Orson Scott Card’s open homophobia)—and as leftwing as Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice,61 which describes a military society with strangely conservative mores richly different than our own, and an egalitarian quality to gender and sexuality which marked a new standard in speculative fiction.

All these stories, including Rand’s, express the political as personal—exploring behaviors in radically imaginative worlds, involving the actions, feelings, ideas, and struggles of the individuals within them. Sometimes the politics of these worlds are taken as given, normalized by the characters despite their strangeness to the reader, leaving the protagonists to struggle against outside forces. This is the case in Starship Troopers. In other instances, the characters’ personal-political conflicts are more immediate. In Friday, Heinlein’s titular character exists in a paramilitary, hierarchical world while seeking a life more anarchical or socialist, giving us a personal-political conflict in its subtext; conversely, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaiden’s Tale brings the personal-political front and center.62

At the other end of the political spectrum: From Neuromancer onward, a distinct anti-capitalist undertow pervades the writings of William Gibson.63 Neal Stephenson’s works, everything since Snow Crash,64 deconstruct the relationships between individuals and the sociocultural complexes in which they exist, critiquing systems similar to our own while imagining others radically different—hyper-capitalist, communitarian hive, or anarchistic.

Ursula K. Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson envision futures more socialist or socially democratic, each with distinctive takes on what it requires to make such societies work, and what they might mean. Le Guin has even gone so far as to call on science-fiction writers to imagine alternatives to corporate-capitalist hegemony,65 to literally show society the way toward a different (better?) future.

In her acceptance speech for the Distinguished Contribution medal at the National Book Awards, Le Guin said, “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.”

Once more, we should be reminded of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which decried not Stalinism specifically, but any sociopolitical system which tended toward totalitarianism. On this, Mohsin Hamid wrote:

The Berlin Wall fell the year I graduated from high school, and so it seemed to me that Orwell had gotten things wrong, that his dystopia, no matter how believably chilling, could never be humanity’s future. I associated “1984” [sic] with life behind the Iron Curtain. Only later, living in London in the noughties, an era of Bush-Blair doublethink and perpetual “war on terror,” did it occur to me that Orwell’s novel was set not in Russia but in Britain, and that perhaps the only reason his terrifying vision of society had been prevented from coming fully into existence was that he had already warned us—for otherwise the tendencies to slip into his nightmare were everywhere to be seen.66

As a decades-long counter to this, Robinson has been imagining variations on a future without capitalism, or one in which it plays a much-altered role. Notably, he gives us characters who reflect these imaginative personal-political systems, who behave accordingly, and who are also three-dimensional, flawed, and relatable.

Heinlein, Le Guin, Clarke, Robinson, and so many others spin futures which, while imperfect and laden with their own challenges, are nonetheless freer and often more humane than our world today. These are political visions with personal consequences. This is what speculative fiction, by its very nature, does better than any other form of writing—fiction or otherwise.

Tim Kreider called Robinson “our greatest political novelist,” and wrote:

If historians or critics fifty years from now were to read most of our contemporary literary fiction, they might well infer that our main societal problems were issues with our parents, bad relationships, and death. If they were looking for any indication that we were even dimly aware of the burgeoning global conflict between democracy and capitalism, or of the abyssal catastrophe our civilization was just beginning to spill over the brink of, they might need to turn to books that have that embarrassing little Saturn-and-spaceship sticker on the spine. That is, to science fiction.67

I couldn’t agree more. In science fiction we trust. Now let’s get busy writing, as well as reading, so that we can best see our future. What’s more, like Orwell and so many others, let’s not shirk the political; indeed, as I hope you agree, we can scarcely avoid it.

Pet Peeves of Style: Quotation & Punctuation

Do you know when punctuation should appear inside quotation marks? Do you know when it shouldn’t? For quotation marks, usages differ between American and British standards. These differences are not limited to the employment of single versus double quotations, and they include expectations about the usages of punctuation inside and out of the marks. That said, when in doubt, English usually demands that you place any final punctuation inside the closing quotation mark. Most casual writers will remember their teachers telling them something of the sort at one time or another. Frequently, remembering this rule will lead to the correct end result; sometimes, it’ll mark you as amateurish.

Here’s how to avoid that:

Many of the exceptions relate to technical writing, especially to expressions which refer to computer-programming languages and code. Here, for our purposes, I couldn’t care less about them. If you quote computer code or logical expressions, in your writing, simply remember: place any punctuation outside the quotations. The likes of programmers and mathematicians should, at once, understand why; the rest of us needn’t bother to ponder to it.

More importantly, one common error often appears in prose. It is less optional than the Oxford comma and almost makes me scream as loudly as the Oxford’s omission.

In English, speech and related phrases appear inside quotation marks, even when denoting irony. In such cases, the terminal punctuation always goes inside the marks:

  • “Yesterday, we went to the moon,” said the boy.
  • “Ye’ll larn a pretty smart chance of things ye never did know, before I’ve done with ye!” said Legree.1
  • Billy asked, “Do you know that hippopotamus?”
  • Trump used “quotation marks,” though he clearly misunderstood their purpose.

English also uses quotations for some titles: episodic television shows, article titles, short stories and films, poems, chapters, songs, and essays.

  • My stories include “Reboot”, “Sapience Signified”, and “Cut Adrift”.
  • My favorite episodes of Firefly are “Out of Gas”, “Our Mrs. Reynolds”, and “Shindig”.
  • Never: He wrote an excellent essay, “The Joys of Wine and Pigs,” which changed my life forever.

In the last case, the inclusion of the comma inside the marks changes the title itself. The name of the essay is no longer “The Joys of Wine and Pigs”, but “The Joys of Wine and Pigs,”. Notice now the offending comma?

Dear writers, never do this, and you’ll make this grammarian a smidgen happier.