Some changes to Autistic Book Party ratings

I’m pleased to announce a few minor changes to how Autistic Book Party rates books (and short fiction, and poetry).

In the beginning, everything on Autistic Book Party was either Recommended, YMMV, or Not Recommended. These are still the main categories. Later, I added the Marginal category, for cases where an autistic character is written well but is only a very minor part of the story.

I have been amassing a lot of Recommended work, especially in the Short Form category, and I worry that the sheer number of works will become overwhelming. So I’m introducing a new rating, Highly Recommended, for stories that are the very, very best (like no one ever was). If you don’t have time to read everything that is Recommended, you can start with just these.

This category is intended to be a very short list, so I am deliberately making it difficult for a work to get this rating. To be Highly Recommended, a work needs to do all of the following:

  • Autism is foregrounded in the story. At least one major character must be autistic and it must be clear in the text of story – not merely from author’s notes, etc, or through fan diagnosis – that this is what they are. In a story with a contemporary or near-future setting, this means actually using the word “autism”. In other settings, the character(s)’ neurodivergence should be made clear in some way appropriate to the setting.
  • The story, like any Recommended story, portrays autism well and authentically.
  • The story has something important to say about autism or a closely related issue. The story would be significantly altered if the autistic characters were not autistic.
  • The story is written at a professional level in terms of plot, characterization, setting, atmosphere, and style.
  • Many stories do very good and important things overall, but also do other things that I have qualms about. I have absolutely no compunctions about giving a story like this a Recommended rating even if I am uncomfortable with certain aspects, and just talking out the points of discomfort in the text of the review. A Highly Recommended story, however, does not give me any of these qualms. It is purely good. It doesn’t stumble.
  • The story gives me feels. On a purely personal, subjective level, I love this story.

The author’s identity is not formally a criterion for a Highly Recommended rating. It’s possible for a neurotypical author to write a Highly Recommended story, but I doubt it will happen.

Stories that are good, and portray autism well, but which are not quite amazing enough to be Highly Recommended, will continue to get a Recommended rating. This will be the majority of stories that I recommend.

There are currently two stories I’ve already reviewed which I feel deserve a Highly Recommended rating. These two stories are “Difference of Opinion” by Meda Kahn and “Geometries of Belonging” by Rose Lemberg. They have been moved to the appropriate part of the Reviews Index.

As of the time I am writing this, no book-length work has yet met the criteria for being Highly Recommended.

I’ve also been dissatisfied for a long time with how I handle good stories written by autistic authors that don’t have autistic characters in them. I absolutely think that such stories deserve recommendation and promotion. I do feel, though, that the motivation for seeking out these stories is a little different from the motivation for seeking out stories about autism, and both types of story are doing different things. It never felt quite right to me to lump both types into the same category, even though I earnestly wanted to recommend them both.

Therefore, in addition to creating the Highly Recommended category, I am separating the rest of the Recommended category into Recommended-1 and Recommended-2. Recommended-1 is for stories that portray autistic characters well, regardless of the neurotype of the author. Recommended-2 is for good stories by autistic authors that don’t explicitly have autism in them. As it happens, most Recommended-2 stories still have strong diversity and disability themes, and/or themes like forced normalization, social pressure, etc which will be very meaningful to a majority of autistic readers. I still strongly support people seeking out and reading Recommended-2 stories, and I may even be expanding the range of short stories and poems that I consider for this category.

For the moment, the YMMV and Not Recommended categories will not be separated in this way, simply because the number of stories affected would be vanishingly small.

(Speaking of which, I am still – always – taking recommendations for short fiction and poetry to review, especially by authors I haven’t reviewed yet. Book recs will be noted, too, but they take a lot longer to get to.)

Autistic Book Party, Episode 29: Experimental Film

Today’s Book: “Experimental Film” by Gemma Files

The Plot: Lois Cairns, a Canadian film critic, stumbles upon an antique film that could make her career – but the film’s supernatural connections prove to be more than she bargained for.

Autistic Character(s): Several, as described below.

“Experimental Film” is a complicated book. It’s a horror novel, to get that out of the way; it’s a book in which people are messed up and bad things happen to them. The most obvious autistic character, mentioned in the back cover copy, is Lois’s son Clark. Clark is a whirlwind of energy who speaks mostly in echolalia, but before we talk much about him, I want to talk about Lois.

Lois begins the novel in a fairly traditional posture, for an autism parent – exasperated and worried by her child, pessimistic about his prognosis, and generally stressed and exhausted. The first scenes in which Clark appears are difficult to get through, because of some of Lois’s negative mental comments about him. But the scenes also introduce a complication that the back cover didn’t mention:

But my version of fucked up was never going to be enough like his to help us meet in the middle; I come from the other end of the spectrum. And I remember sitting next to my mom, going down the list of Asperger’s Syndrome diagnosis points one by one, showing her how much they reminded me of how I’d been as a child, an adolescent, before socialization kicked the worst of it out of me. “Little Professor Syndrome,” check. Rabid enthusiasms, check. Inability to converse without monologizing, check. Vocabulary far exceeding normal age standards, check. Frustration, check. Inability to form friendships, check. Violent tantrums, check. Self-harm, check. Check, check, check.
“Don’t you see?” I asked her. “This is why this happened. Because I’m just like him, except it’s all on the inside.”
She looked at me then with what might have been sympathy, but what I read (at the time) as contempt, the way I’m prone to do. Because – another check – I’ve never really been able to tell what other people are thinking just by looking at their faces, unless their faces are up on a movie screen.
“Come on, Lois,” she said. “It’s bad enough as it is. Don’t try to make this all about you.

What the book shows about Lois confirms that she is, in fact, autistic. She is fixed and fanatical in her interests. She comes of to other characters as strange, prickly, difficult to deal with. She is easily overwhelmed, shutting down and dissociating under stress. She is confused about human motivation, or sometimes fails to take it into account at all. Lois’s narrative voice is not the stereotyped “autism voice”, but it is a voice full of intense detail, dense information, frequent asides to passionately explain something – a voice that rings very true to me, as an autistic person.

So – this is important. “Experimental Film” is marketed as a book about an Autism Parent, but it’s actually a book about more than one autistic person. Lois – low-support, depressed, passing for abled, and additionally disabled with more than one form of chronic pain – experiences her autism in one way. Clark, who at this point in his life cannot possibly pass, experiences it in another, and Lois doesn’t always know how to deal with him appropriately, any more than an NT mother would.

Lois does several things right. She never denies her child’s humanity or devalues his life. There’s no mention of ABA or any other abusive therapy. Lois consistently pushes back against people, including her own mother, who suggest that Clark should simply be trained to parrot the correct response. She knows very well that Clark needs to be accepted for who he is, and is extremely critical of her own failures to do that.

Because Lois does fail in many ways. She barely pays attention to Clark for the first hundred pages of the book. She says negative things in front of him that she assumes he will not understand. (And is called on it – rightly – by her husband Simon, a very sweet and patient man who seems to do most of the childcare.) Clark is shown being clearly affectionate to both parents, but Lois insists that she cannot know he loves her, that his echolalic statements about it somehow don’t count the way they do when they’re directed at Simon. Her general pattern with Clark is one of distance:

But I have to protect myself, first and foremost: not from him, but from my own… disappointment in him, over things he can’t even help… I have to keep myself just far enough apart from him to be able to love him at all, knowing it’ll never be as much as he deserves to be loved. And that’s not because he’s broken, no. Not at all.
That’s because I am.

Did I mention Lois is depressed? Lois is really depressed. She is consistently even more critical of herself as a person than she deserves. She is also so consumed with interest in her work – which is, of course, an autistic trait – that she barely has patience for anything else. She consistently pushes herself hard enough that it actively worsens her pain, her sleep patterns, and her relationships with her family. And that’s before the supernatural horror aspect of the novel kicks into high gear.

When we try to think of good representation, we are so often thinking of role models. Lois is not that. She’s also not a stereotype, not a plot device, not a supercrip or Evil Disabled Person. She’s a flawed, complex, breathing human whose flaws and complexity are fully portrayed. She is not sugarcoated, and once I got used to her level of internalized ableism – “A defective person, raising a defective child“, as she calls herself at one point – I appreciated that.

(I’m reminded of a Short Story Smorgasbord I did a while back, when I said that I didn’t object to having unlikeable autistic protagonists, I just didn’t think the one in that particular story was done well. I guess it’s time to put my money where my mouth was: Lois is an unlikeable autistic protagonist, done right.)

I mentioned supernatural horror. The vintage film Lois discovered was made a century earlier, by a woman named Iris Dunlopp Whitcomb, whose life strongly parallels Lois’s. Both are subtly autistic, depressed women, possessed by an intense vocation, and struggling to care for an autistic son. Iris’s son Hyatt is described in obviously autistic terms, but the references to Iris’s autism go by so quick you could almost miss them:

“People understood,” Moraine said. “They knew she had more than enough on her plate to deal with already. She was eccentric, sad – special, just like her boy.”

So that makes four autistic characters. (Lois suggests at one point that Simon is also on or close to the spectrum. I’m not sure about that one.) But Iris Dunlopp Whitcomb’s life is also haunted by a spectre known as Lady Midday – a murderous god demanding worship from anyone unfortunate enough to look at her.

We are first introduced to Lady Midday in a fairy tale: she approaches people out working in the fields at noon, and questions them. The way to survive an encounter with Lady Midday, according to the tale, is to be humble and courteous, to insist that you are happy working, to refuse all offers of rest or water – and, above all, to avoid looking at her. As in many fairy tales, characters who behave properly are rewarded. Characters who fail get their heads cut off.

Iris sees her compulsive art-making as work assigned to her by Lady Midday, work she cannot stop. We find out later in the book that Lady Midday was actually worshipped, pre-WWI, by certain European villages. They, like Iris, see her as gifting certain individuals with work assignments that they can never stop, no matter how long they live. These villagers would also perform human sacrifices in Lady Midday’s honor, burying alive their elderly parents and “changeling” children. Sacrificing, in other words, the disabled to her.

(I have to break in at this point. I was VERY WORRIED that this novel was going to go the child-murder route. It does not. Murdering disabled children is mentioned, briefly, as a thing that people did in the historical past. But that’s all. At no point in the book is any named character tempted to be violent to their child.)

Lady Midday is an elusive figure, one who defies precise definition – after all, that would be looking at her. But inasmuch as it’s possible to assign meaning to her, I can’t help but view Lady Midday as an avatar of ableism. She predates capitalism, but she personifies the capitalist view in which a person is only a vector for work. One only has worth if one is working, without end, hiding and denying whatever toll it might take. In which the people who cannot do this work might as well be dead.

Lois, a driven Aspie longing for professional recognition, hating herself for human weakness, pushing incessantly past her health problems, and terrified of how her colleagues will treat her if she falters, is perfectly positioned to fall under this spell. She is also perfectly positioned to thwart Lady Midday, in the end – not by abandoning her work, but by radically reconsidering what is important to her as she does it.

As for Clark, he’s not given the detailed treatment that he would have if he were the protagonist. There’s a limit to what can be shown of him given that the entire novel is written in the POV of his mother, whose statements about Clark are often unreliable. Within those limits, though, Files shows us strong hints of who he is as a person. Clark is enthusiastic, affectionate, and quite loud; his speech is almost entirely echolalic, but a meaning can frequently be discerned. His role in the plot is not particularly active: he’s first a distraction from Lois’s work, then a source of eerie foreshadowing, then a child actively endangered by supernatural phenomena, before he finally returns to a Lois who has learned to appreciate him a little more. I might have liked to see more agency from Clark, but given that he is a child, and given the kind of story he is in, I really don’t know if anything could realistically be changed.

Reading this book and talking about it with a few of my friends, I’m struck by how little we have in the way of language for people like Lois. The abusively ableist “Warrior Mother” schema is not appropriate for her. But we have very little language for her in the autism self-advocacy movement, either. We pay lip service to the idea that autistic people can be autism parents. But in practice, we tend to assume that a given parent is either for us or against us. We don’t make a lot of space to discuss autistic parents’ internalized ableism, overload, social pressure, conflicting support needs, or the many other factors that can make parenting a challenge – even for someone who intimately understands the spectrum and is not at all interested in excuses for abusing their child.

“Experimental Film” begins to create such a space, not by making Lois a role model or by talking about what she ought to do, but by letting her struggle. By showing the struggle in unapologetically intimate detail – and by showing Lois, by the end of the story, begin to make small steps forward.

“Experimental Film” is a book about multiple flawed and struggling autistic people whose lives catastrophically intersect. It is a book in which ableism is literally the villain. It shows the very ugly ways in which internalized ableism poisons our working lives, (paradoxically) our health, our ability to treat other disabled people properly, our relationships with the people who matter most to us, and our relationships with ourselves. It sugarcoats nothing. But it shows, in the end – without any quick or magic fixes – characters beginning to learn that there is another way.

The very ugliness of the internalized ableism, especially in early chapters, will make this a book that not every autistic reader can stomach. But for others, “Experimental Film” may be the book that they didn’t even know how desparately they needed.

The Verdict: Recommended

(Thanks are due to Rose Lemberg in particular, and also to Elizabeth Bartmess, A.C. Buchanan, and Bogi Takács, for a conversation that helped me solidify my thoughts about this book. All opinions expressed here are solely my own.)

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.

Why Art Matters, According To Science

I posted, after the election, about art mattering, and voices mattering. I believe this based on first principles alone – people matter, and what they have to say matters. But since then, I know a lot of my writer friends have struggled to believe that their writing makes any difference. Sure, we say (it’s me as well), maybe we need art right now, but mine isn’t political enough, isn’t persuasive enough, isn’t this enough, isn’t that enough. Mine isn’t going to help anyone in today’s world.

One of the nice things about being an academic who studies creativity is that I sometimes have new answers to these doubts.

As a case in point – and please remember, this case is only one specific way in which art can help people – I’m going to describe some research on fiction and personality change. This is mostly based on the work summarized in the paper “The Art in Fiction: From Indirect Communication to Changes of the Self” by Maja Djikic and Keith Oatley at the University of Toronto. But don’t worry! I am not going to write this like an academic paper! It’ll be fun!

Djikic and Oatley, along with other psychologists, have run experiments in which participants do personality tests, then read literary fiction, then do the tests again. These are compared with a control group in which the participants read something else – sometimes nonfiction, sometimes a dry, courtroom-style summary of the events in the story.

Usually, personality traits are stable. They rarely change, and it’s very difficult to change them through direct persuasion. But psychologists running these experiments found something strange. After reading fiction, a person’s personality becomes temporarily destabilized. If you do a personality test immediately after reading something, your answers may be different to what you usually give.

Moreover, everyone’s personality will be destabilized in a different way. One person might become less conscientious and more open after reading a story. Another person, reading the exact same story, will change their answers in a completely different way. These changes are mediated – that is, they partly depend on – the emotions a reader experiences during the story, which are also specific to the reader. They aren’t necessarily based on what the author intended to reader to feel, but on the idiosyncratic way each person reacts to what they’re reading.

Does this personality change last? Well, yes and no. Normally, it’s temporary. But if someone’s personality is already going in a direction where it can change, the temporary destabilizations caused by things like fiction help to nudge it along.

And we do see lasting patterns over time that seem to result from fiction reading. In particular, habitual fiction readers end up showing greater empathy than non-readers – even when controlling for things like IQ and education, which would logically make fiction books more accessible to some people than others.

Cool, but if the logical content intended by the author isn’t what causes this change, then what does? Djikic and Oatley suggest that it’s specifically the “literary” aspects of a text that make the difference. Literary style – phrasing things in an unusual and compelling way – makes elements of a text stand out and seem special, and this facilitates readers having a personal emotional reaction that they didn’t expect. “Showing” a character’s emotions, through their actions or the implications of their words, rather than “telling” them, seems to increase empathy specifically, since the reader has to pay more attention to subtle cues to what the character is feeling. The increase in empathy is also strongest for people who become very mentally immersed in a story, visualizing the events of the narrative in their head.

It’s worth noting here that, if you read specific papers about the psychology of fiction, many make a sharp distinction between “literary” and “commercial” fiction. This can be a little hard for genre writers like us to take. It makes sense on its face that literary fiction contains more stylistic devices than commercial fiction. But a lot of researchers, insisting on this distinction between literary and commercial, don’t test it directly. That is to say, they don’t test literary fiction with a commercial fiction control group. Instead, as I mentioned, they test literary fiction against non-fiction, or against special versions of literary fiction with some or all of the literary devices taken out. We all know, though, that it’s possible to use literary devices in any genre.

And when researchers do measure specific genres against each other, the results are a little surprising. Science fiction without a literary style does rather poorly at generating empathy. Litfic does better – but the very best genre for generating empathy is romance. (Think of that next time you are tempted to turn up your nose at a romance author!)

Many of these effects have been documented for other art forms too, such as visual art, music, and film. Art in general seems to be uniquely positioned to expand our minds by generating emotions in a way that’s personal and individually relevant to us.

This isn’t even getting into the other things art can do. For example, so far I’ve only talked about increasing empathy in a general sense, not about generating empathy for specific groups (such as a marginalized group). And I haven’t mentioned some of the things that science fiction is especially good at, such as imagining new solutions to societal problems. This isn’t meant to be a statement of the only thing fiction can do, or even the most important thing. But it’s one thing.

Like the protagonist in “A Spell To Retrieve Your Lover From The Bottom Of The Sea”, a good story can’t force anyone to change. But what it can do is create a space for change. A space where, for those who are willing, change and understanding become a little bit more possible.

Maybe, for some of us, that can be enough.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 29 And Three Quarters: Short Story Smorgasbord

Lesley L. Smith, “Bologna and Vanilla” (Daily Science Fiction, December 2014)
[Autistic author] A first contact flash story in which lexical-gustatory synesthesia helps the protagonist understand alien speech. I thought that the synesthesia was a bit simplistically handled, compared to Luna Lindsey’s “Touch of Tides”, which has a similar premise. But we can always use more stories in which thinking or sensing differently from other people is the key to success. [YMMV, but I liked it]
A.C. Buchanan, “Invisible City” (self-published, February 2015)
[Autistic author] A novelette about a man traumatized by his experiences in a country which, because of magic, no longer exists. There are no autistic characters here, but it’s a very good story about memory, dictatorship, rebellion, and the human tendency to pretend that terrible things never happened. This makes it, strangely, more timely now than it was at the time of its release. [Recommended]
An Owomoyela, “Unauthorized Access” (Lightspeed, September 2016)
A young woman named Aedo is let out of jail for hacking – and immediately gets sucked into another, even more dangerous hacking project. It’s subtle at first, but I definitely read Aedo as an Aspie due to repeated mentions of her social awkwardness, dislike of eye contact, preference for expressing herself by typing, etc. I really like that the story centers someone who can talk, but has an easier time writing, and that it shows how difficult that is to explain to other people without implying that it is therefore somehow bad or wrong. I also enjoyed the subversively realistic portrayal of hacker culture, and the way the tension ratchets up as Aedo realizes she’s being used. [Recommended]
Bogi Takács, “Good People in a Small Space” (free Patreon reward, December 2016)
[Autistic author] A very short, very cute story set in the same universe as Bogi’s Iwunen Interstellar Investigations web serial. Several people from Eren, a planet of autistic people, feature prominently in the story. The viewpoint character, while not autistic, does a good job respectfully adjusting their behavior to make their interactions more comfortable for the Ereni. There are also some adorably polite negotiations around pain, and some ARTISINAL LOGIC PUZZLES. [Recommended]
Merc Rustad, “Monster Girls Don’t Cry” (Uncanny, January 2017)
[Autistic author] A horror story about monsters and the people who try to make them “normal”, with and without their consent. There are no autistic characters, but autistic readers (among others) will relate very hard to the themes of social pressure, closeting, and forced normalization. Please take the content warning at the top of the story seriously – and considering the number of autistic readers who have trauma related to this, there should also be a content warning for non-consensual medical treatment / surgery. It’s all sensitively handled, though, and there is a well-earned happy ending. [Recommended]

January Updates

I’ve been quiet, partly because the news is overwhelming, but mostly because I switched web hosting providors and that plus my surprising web incompetence put my site out of commission for longer than planned.

While I was away, I’ve had some miscellaneous good news.

My story “A Spell to Retrieve Your Lover from the Bottom of the Sea” came third in the 2017 Strange Horizons Readers’ Poll.

JC Hoskins recently wrote a very kind review of this story:

Though I don’t know if the author intended it, personally I read it as a story about depression, and loving someone with depression, and the deep dark place that that can be.

From that reading, both the hope and the ferocious tenacity of the protagonist really connected with me.

(I was not, in fact, thinking specifically of depression, but I do think that the depression reading is a good one to which the story’s beats and details are well suited. The same goes for readers who have identified the story as being about addiction. I’m glad that readers with many different life experiences have been able to connect with this one.)

Fran Wilde included “A Spell to Retrieve Your Lover From the Bottom of the Sea” on her list of favorite works from 2016.

Nerds of a Feather added my other 2016 prose work, the “The Scrape of Tooth on Bone”, to their Hugo recommendation longlist for novelettes.

I’ve sold another poem to Liminality Magazine, so now I have not one, but two works forthcoming with them. We’ll see which one lands first and what happens with it.

Most excitingly yet, a work that I collaborated on with Merc Rustad has been accepted by Lightspeed Magazine. “I Sing Against the Silent Sun” is a novelette about poetry and resistance, and it’s set in Merc’s Principality Suns universe. I am a fan of the Principality Suns, in which everything is really weird dark passionate queer space opera all the time, and it was an honor to be asked to collaborate and create things for that world.

I’ll post more about “I Sing Against the Silent Sun” closer to its release.