31 December 2004

Read and Appreciated 2004

Over at Fantastic Metropolis, some lists of things read and appreciated in 2004 have begun appearing, including lists from Zoran Zivcovic and Paul Witcover and, well, me. More will, I'm sure, be posted in the coming days and weeks.

Happy new year, everyone.

30 December 2004

Boobs and Poop: The Road to Wellville

There are some things a person shouldn't admit in public, and a fondness for the movie The Road to Wellville is probably one of them. But these have been sad, depressing days out in the Real World, and so I can't resist spending at least a few (perhaps ill-considered) words on a movie I should not admit having seen numerous times of my own free will.

The Road to Wellville is based on T.C. Boyle's amusing novel of the same name (a book that is rather different from the film in tone and temperament). The story is historical, and surprisingly accurate -- after seeing the movie and reading the novel, I did some research (I think I got Gerald Carson's Cornflake Crusade from the library) and was amazed to see that Boyle and then Alan Parker, the director of the film, had only slightly exaggerated the story of John Harvey Kellogg.

In the movie, Kellogg is played by Anthony Hopkins. It is my favorite role of his, which is probably something else I shouldn't admit in public. But Hopkins gives it such a great shot, working around a horrendously silly set of buck teeth and an accent that is different from one scene to the next, that I can't help laughing every time he appears. And he gets some of the best dialogue:
Interviewer: Sir, how often should one evacuate one's bowels?

Dr. John Harvey Kellogg: One should never, ever, interrupt one's desire to defecate. I have inquired at the Bronx and London Zoos as to the daily bowel evacuations of primates. It is not once, twice, or three times, sir, but four. At the end of an average day, their cages are filled with a veritable mountain of natural health.

Interviewer: And, sex?

Dr. John Harvey Kellogg: Sex is the sewer drain of a healthy body, sir! Any use of the sexual act other than procreation is a waste of vital energy! Wasted seeds are wasted lives!
A viewer who rented the movie through Netflix said of it: "This movie is all about boobs and poop." Indeed, it is -- obsessively so. But some of the actors get marvelous roles -- Michael Lerner and John Neville are my two favorites after Hopkins, although many of the small roles are also quite fun -- that make up for Matthew Broderick and Bridget Fonda, who are good sports about it all, but seem rather at a loss of what to do, as if they'd thought they signed up for a serious movie involving method acting rather than one where the characters are cartoons. The sets are marvelous, too, and there are plenty of visual puns as one scene cuts to the next.

The DVD is overpriced for what it is -- the movie (not letterboxed) and nothing more, other than subtitles in English for a film that's in English -- which makes me hope that some day, perhaps, Criterion will do something with it. I'm almost serious about that, because it's a movie that works very well as a DVD because you can skip over the occasional dull moments, and it would certainly be interesting to hear from the actors and crew about their experiences making the film. Throw in a documentary on Dr. Kellogg, and it would be a great package!

I could say that the film is about finding responsibility in liberation, that it seeks to show that grand ideals are good cover for selfish schemes and wild delusions -- but I know in my heart that though there is a certain amount of truth to all that, the Netflix viewer is right: It's a movie about boobs and poop. And if you don't like a wide variety of jokes about boobs and poop, there's no way you would ever find the movie to have any redeeming value. In fact, no matter what you think of boobs and poop, there's probably something seriously wrong with you if you do find redeeming value in the film. There's nothing redeeming about it. It's just ridiculous fun.

28 December 2004

Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag has died.

(If you've never read any of Sontag's critical writings, Ed Champion provides some good links to essays, interviews, and miscellanea.)

I've read Against Interpretations and Other Essays numerous times and have kept a copy nearby since the early years of college. First, it taught me that there was a lot I didn't know about the worlds of literature and film, and, indeed, the world itself. Then it provided me with ways of thinking about aesthetic experiences. Ever since, it has offered familiar words along with something different to argue with and against each time. I've never felt compelled to agree with Sontag, but I've always felt compelled to read her, to reread her, to think about what she has to say. There are other writers of essays and criticism that I enjoy more, certainly many whose tastes are closer to mine, but none whose work has so frequently caused me to re-evaluate not only what I value, but how.

One of the things that I have most enjoyed about Sontag's work is her ability to cross between various art forms, historical periods, and ideas. I've spent most of my life bouncing between the realms of literature and theatre while also maintaining a (very) amateur interest in film, and thoroughly dilettantish flirtations with such subjects as art history, philosophy, and music. Sontag always seemed to know more about those subjects than I did, and she knew things in such interesting and provocative ways that I always wanted to find out more.

Sontag's willingness to write in various modes -- to write fiction and plays, to create movies -- while all the time continuing to write various forms of criticism, seems to me another model worth emulating. One of the problems with the theatre world is that too many practitioners are not critics and too many critics are not practitioners. I don't think a critic needs to be a particularly good creator (Sontag's success as a fiction writer and playwright was mixed), but they can speak with more authority when they have at least attempted to live through the process of creating something other than criticism.

In the "Note to the Paperback Edition" of Against Interpretation that I have (a sun-stained and life-scarred old paperback with a remarkably strong binding), Sontag writes:
Before I wrote the essays I did not believe many of the ideas espoused in them; when I wrote them, I believed what I wrote; subsequently, I have come to disbelieve some of these same ideas again -- but from a new perspective, one that incorporates and is nourished by what is true in the argument of the essays. Writing criticism has proved to be an act of intellectual disburdenment as much as of intellectual self-expression. I have the impression not so much of having, for myself, resolved a certain number of alluring and troubling problems as of having used them up. But no doubt this is illusory. The problems remain, more remains to be said about them by other curious and reflective people, and perhaps this collection of some recent thinking about the arts will have a certain relevance to that.
A perfect credo for a critic, it seems to me; a perfect process of thinking. The "problems" Sontag spoke to do, indeed, remain, and always will, because they are the deep puzzles and wonders of art: what do we value and why? how do we talk about what we value? how do we learn to value more than what we do without sacrificing integrity? Etc.

The problems remain, and I hope they always will, but we have lost one of the best thinkers to have tackled those problems during our lifetimes.

Update 12/29: The NY Times has opened up the archive, and there are some wonders in amidst the blather. A couple days ago, if asked to name three favorite critics (living, American) I would have said Sontag, John Leonard, and William Gass. Here's Leonard on Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others:
So much, then, for Guy Debord, Jean Baudrillard and their French-fried American fellows in the media studies programs, looking down on staged events as if from zeppelins, or like the kings of Burma on the backs of elephants, remote and twitchy among the pixels, with multiple views in slo-mo, intimate focus or broad scan, and an IV-feed of chitchat. When we think about the pictures we have seen from Bosnia, Rwanda and Chechnya, about the videotapes available to us of Rodney King being beaten and Daniel Pearl being murdered, media theory seems merely impudent.
And here's Gass on the book Regarding the Pain of Others was meant to amend, On Photography:
One realizes, reading Susan Sontag's book, that the image has done more than smother or mask or multiply its object. My face is only photography, and people inspect me to see if I resemble it. The family album demonstrates to me what I don't yet feel: not that I was young once, but that I'm old now. Time, so long as it lingers in the look, is visible to us in this photographic age in a way it was never visible before, among familiar things, we fail to measure change with any accuracy; but the camera records one step upon the stone, and then another, until the foot has worn a hollow like a hand cupped to catch rain. Process has become perceptible in the still.
Now, if only I knew whether Guy Davenport or John Clute had written about her, the circles of influence would be nearly complete...

27 December 2004

Linkdump

First and most importantly, if you're interested in giving money to support relief organizations in Asia after the earthquake and tsunami, here are some links:
Command Post has an updated list of organizations seeking help

Oxfam America's Asian Earthquake Fund (you can find other regions' Oxfam sites from here)

Unicef

Doctors Without Borders

American Red Cross and British Red Cross

Boing Boing is keeping a list of Southeast Asian bloggers who are posting news about the effects of the disaster

They also point to tsunamihelp.blogspot.com, which, Xeni Jardin says, "is shaping up to be something of a central clearinghouse on the aftermath, and relief efforts."
It seems odd to switch topics from something so important, but that's the nature of this medium, so here are some links on other subjects:
Carl Zimmer's excellent science weblog The Loom links to a detailed look at the science in Michael Crichton's new book by Real Climate, a group weblog put together by nine climatologists.

Nalo Hopkinson picks up where Ken MacLeod left off regarding The Lord of the Rings, creating my favorite blog post title in recent memory: "Massa Sauron, I don' know nothin' bout birthin' no orcs." (And in case you want to accuse me of being nothing but a LotR basher, I'll say here and forevermore that I found the films to be fascinating and entrancing and wondrous, and that I own all three of the extended DVDs, etc. etc. etc. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't be thought about, critiqued, parodied, and questioned. And, by the way, I thought the extended version of the third film to be the most homoerotic of them all.)

The Little Professor looks at connections between The Finishing School and Finding Neverland

Dan Green defends It's a Wonderful Life (and again).

A fine post at CultureSpace about time, memory, and experience in Blade Runner

Czech Book Covers of the 1920s and 1930s from The Smithsonian. Search by style (Constructivism, Poetism, Surrealism, Socialist Realism), author, date, or, from the main page, artist. There's a 1935 cover for R.U.R., the play from which the word robot came to us. (via Languor Management)

23 December 2004

"Stone Animals" by Kelly Link

If Kelly Link isn't the best short story writer in the U.S., then she's the equal of whoever is. I first came to this conclusion a couple of years ago when I read her story "Lull" in Conjunctions: 39, and I am absolutely certain of it now that I have read "Stone Animals" in Conjunctions: 43. (Of course, I've also read her collection Stranger Things Happen, but, much as I admire it, nothing in that book is as breathtaking as the stories she has written since it appeared, particularly the two Conjunctions stories.)

"Stone Animals" both employs and parodies the basic elements of suburban psychological realism, the sort of scaffolding John Cheever and so many other writers hung their words and laundry on: a family buying a house and moving into it, a father commuting to a desultory job in the city, a pregnant wife who is uncertain about her marriage, suspicions and allegations of adultery, existentially anxious children, a controlling boss, stressful dinner parties, a lawn.

The details, though, explode it all:
"So what's the house like?" said Henry's boss. She was carefully stretching rubber bands around her rubber-band ball. By now the rubber-band ball was so big she had to get special extra-large rubber bands from the art department. She claimed it helped her think. She had tried knitting for a while, but it turned out that knitting was too utilitarian, too feminine. Making an enormous ball out of rubber bands struck the right note. It was something a man might do.
Throughout the story, characters try to find their place, try to align themselves to gender roles and family roles, to job and life, to The Way It's Supposed To Be. But nothing lines up. Nothing can be expected, predicted, prophesied, or counted on. A hundred rabbits appear on the lawn: come to claim their place, or sit in judgment or witness, or steal the children, or sink the house by undermining it with burrows of absurdity. The house is haunted, but not by ghosts, unless it's the ghost of a Brechtian furniture maker, because the haunting here is alienating, a verfremdungseffekt poltergeist that makes belongings no longer belong and strips fetishes of their commodities:
"What's wrong with the TV?"

"I don't know," Catherine said. "It's working fine. But the kids won't go near it. Isn't that great? It's the same thing as the toothbrush. You'll see when you get home. I mean, it's not just the kids. I was watching the news earlier, and then I had to turn it off. It wasn't the news. It was the TV."

"So it's the downstairs bathroom and the coffee maker and Carleton's toothbrush and now the TV?"

"There's some other stuff as well, since this morning. Your office, apparently. Everything in it -- your desk, your bookshelves, your chair, even the paper clips."

"That's probably a good thing, right? I mean, that way they'll stay out of there."

"I guess," Catherine said. "The thing is, I went in and stood in there for a while and it gave me the creeps, too. So now I can't pick up e-mail. And I had to throw out more soap. And King Spanky doesn't love the alarm clock anymore. He won't come out from under the bed when I set it off."
The world of the story is a world of binaries, a world falling apart for lack of grey areas. Catherine and Henry's daughter Tilly divides the yard in half, with one side for herself and one side for her brother, Carleton. She likes to name things and "when the new baby is born, her mother has promised that she can help pick out the real names, although there will only be two real names, a first one and a middle. Tilly doesn't understand why there can only be two." Similarly, everyone seems conscious of what is "male" and what is "female", though there are cracks in the borders -- a group of women get together, for instance, to discuss the quintessentially "male" novel Fight Club. Eventually, everything may fall apart, and the binaries will not hold. Work and home, city and country, husband and wife, daughter and son, boss and worker, awake and asleep, reality and dream, there and not-there; all of it is getting confused. The children can't inherit their parents' patterns, so they start talking to the rabbits. Life just wants to be interstitial. (Is it any wonder that some of the women in the story yearn to write books? As if the borders they desire to cross are ones that can be breached with words.)

Tilly, like Alice before her, finds a door with a rabbit behind it, and follows it down some steps to a wonderland unrevealed to us, crying out "Hairbrush! Zeppelin! Torpedo! Marmalade!", perhaps in a desperate cling to vestiges of childhood and innocence, as if nothing will open Sesame Street. Meanwhile, Carleton won't stop attacking the rabbits with a stick. Catherine, like a woman of royalty, or perhaps Mrs. Dalloway, prepares for a dinner party, one to which Henry will, of course, be late. The binaries are breaking apart. The mother seeks solace in pregnant pauses of sociability, the daughter disappears, the son perpetuates pointless violence. Meanwhile, the father comes home to discover himself locked out of his life, so he rallies the rabbit around him and discovers "the others" are waiting with him for the dinner party to end, and for Henry, who wields a phallic spear and rides a fertility symbol, to bounce into the Agincourt that came with the house, . Except we don't know who "the others" are, and we don't know if this is Henry V or Henry VIII.

Summarizing a story as rich, allusive, and ambiguous as "Stone Animals" is always an effort against inevitable nonsense (or, at best, cleverness, which some people may not find preferable to nonsense). The only durable representation of the story is the story itself.

I can't resist praising one other element of the story, though: it's use of point of view. The narrator is essentially omniscient, roving from person to person, perspective to perspective, like Tolstoy or Slacker. Form undermines content: the world of the story may be struggling against binaries, but the narrative itself is a web of singularities, with the whole greater than its parts, because we, the readers, locked in our own singular minds, make the connections, provide the unity, and sense the harmony. While the story may be profoundly unsettling, and the fates of the individual characters may not be happily-ever-after, the ultimate result is optimistic, because we have no obligation to accept the limits of a binary world.

Fantastic Fantastic Metropolis

As far as I know, no official announcement has been made, but I'm going to break the news anyway, since I just discovered it: Fantastic Metropolis has molted and is arising with an easy-to-navigate new design (one that's rather bloglike, actually) and new content appearing as fast as Luis Rodrigues, the indefatigable editor-in-chief and webdesigner, can get it posted.

The new content is phenomenal, with lots of things by and about Rikki Ducornet: two works of fiction ("The Neurosis of Containment" and "Wormwood"), a gallery of her art, two essays ("Silling" and "The Deep Zoo"), and an academic essay by M.E. Warlick about images of alchemy in Ducornet's novels and art.

There is also a reprint of Jeffrey Ford's appreciation of Akutagawa Ryunosuke's story "The Hell Shade", which is part of Jeff's "virtual anthology", an ongoing project.

There are many fine things in the archives, too. For instance, Alan DeNiro's marvelously provocative essay "The Dream of a Unified Field" (which you can, and should, discuss at FM's Night Shade board, because the discussion there started very well and didn't finish).

Keep checking in on Fantastic Metropolis -- soon, I expect, the 2004 Read & Appreciated lists will begin to appear. (If you have an RSS reader, there are lots of options for syndication, an easy way to know when new work is posted.)

21 December 2004

December IROSF

The latest Internet Review of Science Fiction is now available (and still free!), and includes a review I wrote of the new edition of Michael Moorcock's Wizardry & Wild Romance: A Study of Epic Fantasy, an odd and cantankerous book that, overall, I'm quite fond of.

IROSF is late coming out because founding editor John Frost suddenly had to resign (personal reasons -- no scandal or anything as far as I know). The editorial in the new issue is optimistic about the future, though. Apparently, money has not yet run out, and lots of people have volunteered their services. I was worried that IROSF would go the way of so many internet ventures, dying before it really lived, but I'm glad to know that's not likely to be the case. I enjoyed working with John, wish him all the best, and look forward to seeing what happens next with the magazine.

Books are Now Trivial Pursuits

The Rake pointed out an article in the Christian Science Monitor about -- are you ready? -- Trivial Pursuit: The Book Lover's Edition. The article also mentions another game that sounds immensely enticing: Booktastic, where "Players move around a board that shows a town made up only of bookstores, reading rooms, and cafes."

By the way, if you're looking for good sources of interesting board games (which the Europeans -- especially Germans -- seem to take far more seriously than Americans), check out Funagain Games. And Board Game Geek is a site filled with treasures, too.

20 December 2004

Quote for the Day

To the best of our knowledge, every culture has engaged in some sort of mapping. The question has never been whether to make maps, but what to select for inclusion and how to represent it, given that any map is, as Mark Monmonier says, "but one of an indefinitely large number of maps that might be produced from the same data."

Cartographers must continually confront the fact that there is no such thing as objective presentation. All maps are like the Way Finder in that, in the name of usefulness, they must assume a bias. The first lie of a map -- also the first lie of fiction -- is that it is the truth. And a great deal of a map's, or story's, or poem's authority results from its ability to convince us of its authority. While we expect realistic writing to be accurate when it refers to the world we know, in fiction and poetry, authority has relatively little to do with objective reportage, or simply getting the facts right. [...]

Early in 1942 President Roosevelt urged people to have a map nearby for his next fireside chat, but they probably needed no presidential dictate. The American people wanted urgently to see the world as it had been redefined. Nearly sixty years later, when the towers of the World Trade Center were destroyed, millions of people suddenly wanted to know better the precise geography of lower Manhattan, including the identification of nearby buildings, historic sites, and bridges. (At the same time, New York City's Department of Design and Construction called upon one of the original designers of the buildings' foundations for accurate information on the locations of walls, passages, floors, and water, sewer, electrical, telephone, gas, subway, and train lines under the ruined plaza. No single drawing contained that information; the best resource was one man's mental map.) Soon after, newspapers began printing maps illustrating the topography of Afghanistan and its neighbors, the location of military bases and suspected terrorist strongholds. How we see depends, in part, on what we want to see.

--Peter Turchi
Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer

Fantasy & Modernism

The November issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction contains a frustrating, though thought-provoking, essay by Tom La Farge titled "Collage and Map". The essay attempts to delineate the differences between fantasy fiction and Modernist fiction, and in the issue's editorial, David Hartwell writes, "I hope to finish another essay of my own on sf and Modernism in the relatively near future. I really believe that it is a common strength of the fantasy and sf genres that they are historically in opposition to Modernism in the United States."

I won't deny that SF and Modernism have created different forms of art, nor that each mode has its strengths and weaknesses, nor that proponents of one have seldom been proponents of the other. But the techniques of both Modernism and SF are now such ubiquitous parts of American culture that keeping the two separate, or insisting on the purity of either, seems not only like a lost cause, but a silly one.

To his credit, Tom La Farge does not insist on keeping up a barrier between SF and Modernism, if one ever existed, and his essay ends with the question, "What fiction could draw upon both of the esthetics I have tried to describe?" (Simple answer: A lot of what's been published since 1960, either as fantasy or as mainstream literature.) The biggest problem with the essay is that La Farge does not name names, does not situate readers in anything other than a fantasy world of his own.

The premise of the essay is that Modernism's view of the world and of literature is that of a collage, while fantasy's is of a map. Neither of these are original insights, but La Farge tries hard to do something with them. "Fantasy proposes," he says, "magic as its alternative to the chaos of history; magic is both what must be defended and what must mount the defense. Story is the magic that must be ringwalled, and the Map defends it by circumscribing and representing it."

La Farge takes many of his terms from John Clute and John Grant's excellent Encyclopedia of Fantasy, where "Story" is defined as sequential narrative that "generates a sense that its meaning is conveyed through the actual telling". Unfortunately, La Farge never makes reference to any actual books of fantasy, only reference books and critical essays about the nature of fantastic literature. Thus, it's never clear what sort of fantasy writing he's talking about, and most of what he says does not apply to the vast majority of fantasy that has been written. (Maybe he was thinking of the Harry Potter movies.)

The essay is (very) slightly better with regard to Modernism, because at least La Farge mentions the names of a couple of writers, although it's useful to remember that almost no-one involved in Modernist literary movements ever much liked the definitions that were dropped on them, plenty of the writers disliked each others' work and goals, and today many different definitions of Modernism exist. Nonetheless, if we define Modernism as "whatever it was people like Ezra Pound, Dorothy Richardson, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner, William Carlos Williams, Virginia Woolf, Djuna Barnes, E.E. Cummings, etc. were up to" then we can at least add a little bit of substance to the label.

In La Farge's caricature, Modernism = fragmentation and fantasy = unity:
Fantasy provides memorable images but licenses forgetful retroformations and recombinations. Its image of a whole, sane world, integrated by Story and Map, makes possible a healing wholeness of the reader as subject. Modernism threatens the subject. In its most radical forms, such as analytical cubism or the writings of Gertrude Stein, it calls the integral subject into doubt by multiplying edges and frames and beginnings and repetitions till one cannot see the object represented as having an interior or center. To see it, to enter into a perceptual relationship with it, requires one to cut loose from one's "oneness".
There's a kernel of insight here, but it has little to do with either fantasy or Modernism. The difference La Farge seems to be trying to describe is the difference between subjective and objective worldviews. What he calls fantasy could just as well apply to most forms of writing premised on the idea of a world that is, at heart, orderly and able to be comprehended, a world where chaos is an aberration of the inherent order. Such a description applies to the majority of Greek tragedies, popular mystery novels, and Hollywood movies.

La Farge's description of cubism and Gertrude Stein is not so much inaccurate as it is incomplete, because in the passage I quoted La Farge makes no mention of one of the most important elements separating most Modernist texts from other sorts of writing: language, a subject barely mentioned at all in the entire essay. Through various techniques, including those La Farge cites, the more radical Modernist writers made it impossible for readers to ignore the fact that language has its own values and properties. (The effect at its best is like someone entering the world of Plato's cave and saying to the people looking at the shadows, "Hey, aren't those shadows cool?")

The essay continues with a series of false dichotomies ("Fantasy centers on the needs of the individual for whom experience has been foreclosed; Modernism creates a process of virtual experience to put individuals back in touch with the world," etc.), adds an amusing comparison of Saruman from Lord of the Rings to Ezra Pound, tries to find common ground ("...both reflect a desire for reconnection to the real and a retrieval of meaning, even for the revival of the archaic. Both propose a revitalized world in which desire is clarified. Both take a stand against money..."), and then moves from generalizing about fantasy and Modernism to generalizing about all fiction published today:
Finally, although they may structure imagination differently and although they may ask for a different kind of reading -- Modernism a laborious connection of the disjunct images of collage into a meaningful composition, fantasy a self-insertion into a mapped and framed world -- both insist upon the importance of an imaginative, active reading. In this they differ from and stand as a critique of the normal fiction of our day, designed, I more and more feel, for passive consumption by exhausted, distracted readers. There is a "pre-read" feel to the formulaic fictions from the mainstream houses, whose familiar characters undergo predictable "epiphanies".
I like the idea of Modernism and fantasy both being modes of fiction that encourage active participation from the reader (at their best, this is true, though it's certainly not true of a lot of fantasy that's published). I want to like the last sentence in that paragraph, but it's too general to be useful. What "formulaic fictions from the mainstream houses" is La Farge talking about? Certainly, there are plenty of crappy mainstream novels that make no demands on the reader's imagination, but the same is true of the majority of what gets published by the major SF publishers, the majority of what oozes out of Hollywood, the majority of what clatters from the major music companies, the majority of what hits the stages of America's theatres -- the majority of everything, actually. Without specific examples, La Farge is blustering into a vacuum.

I probably would not have spent this amount of time and thought on La Farge's essay were it not for David Hartwell's comment about SF and Modernism in his editorial, because I think that Hartwell's campaign to keep SF separate from any Modernist influence is ... peculiar. It's peculiar first because it has failed -- Modernism won a long time ago. It's also peculiar because such a desire, though it comes from a feeling that SF is something separate and special from other types of literature, will further marginalize SF by demanding that the only things labeled "science fiction" or "fantasy" be pieces of writing that are illustrations of nostalgia, the literary equivalent of Civil War re-enactments.

The collage techniques and the subjective worldviews often identified with Modernism are techniques that are commonplace in popular culture today, because they were techniques that fit perfectly into the dominant art of the last hundred years: film (by which I mean movies, TV shows, advertisements, etc.). What is CNN Headline News but collage? What is "The Real World" but colliding subjectivities? We are perfectly used to a nonlinear approach to time (so long as it's visual), because we are used to movies juxtaposing scenes that take place simultaneously in the narrative. The internet is even more profoundly Modernist, with every person surfing over their own waves in an ocean no-one can see in its entirety.

What gets obscured by the various well-intentioned people who want SF to return to 1950 is the history of SF's conjunctions with Modernism. I've started reading New Worlds: An Anthology (first put together in 1983 by Michael Moorcock, but only now being released in the U.S. by Thunder's Mouth Press) and it's been fascinating to see that stories published in New Worlds magazine from 1964-1975 feel like they could be from the other anthology I've been reading recently, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories. The New Wave got at least some of its fuel from Modernism, and from the New Wave and its aftermath came many of the best writers SF has known: Moorcock, J.G. Ballard, Samuel R. Delany, Ursula LeGuin, M. John Harrison, James Tiptree, Joanna Russ, Thomas Disch, etc. To claim, then, that SF is "historically in opposition to Modernism" is to privilege a very specific history and a very particular type of SF, excluding many of the best writers who were (and are) not in opposition to Modernism, but who acknowledged it, improvised with it, plundered it, and, ultimately, fused some of the best values of Modernism with some of the best values of popular literature. It was love, not war.

Though Tom La Farge doesn't seem to know it, and David Hartwell seems to think it's a danger, numerous writers continue to fuse science fiction and fantasy with elements of Modernism (and every other -ism), as has been shown by various anthologies -- the Leviathan series, the Polyphony series, Trampoline, Conjunctions 39, and even the Year's Best Fantasy & Horror collections -- and more novelists than I can possibly list. Why? I'll let Virginia Woolf explain, with the last words of her essay "Modern Fiction":
"The proper stuff of fiction" does not exist; everything is the proper stuff of fiction, every feeling, every thought; every quality of brain and spirit is drawn upon; no perception comes amiss. And if we can imagine the art of fiction come alive and standing in our midst, she would undoubtably bid us break her and bully her, as well as honour and love her, for so her youth is renewed and her sovereignty assured.

19 December 2004

A Merry Miéville ChristmasTM

China Miéville has just published a science fiction Christmas story at The Socialist Review, and it's great fun:
I haven't got shares in YuleCo, and I can't afford a one-day end-user licence, so I couldn't have a legal party. I'd briefly considered buying from one of the budget competitors like XmasTym, or a spinoff from a non-specialist like Coca-Crissmas, but the idea of doing it on the cheap was just depressing. I wouldn't have been able to use much of the traditional stuff, and if you can't have all of it, why have any? (XmasTym had the rights to Egg Nog. But Egg Nog's disgusting.) Those other firms keep trying to create their own alternatives to proprietary classics like reindeer and snowmen, but they never take off. I'll never forget Annie's underwhelmed response to the JingleMas Holiday Gecko.

No, like most people, I was going to have a little MidWinter Event, just Annie and me. So long as I was careful to steer clear of licenced products we'd be fine.
It reads like Cory Doctorow crossed with Tony Kushner, and it manages to be something most Christmas stories are not: both whimsical and thoughtful.

18 December 2004

Most Neglected Book of the Year: What You Said

At the beginning of the month, I put out a call for people's opinions on the most neglected book of the year. Some people responded in the comments, some emailed me, and some responded on their own blogs. Here's what I've heard about so far -- feel free to add more in the comments to this post.

Kelly Shaw emailed with: "I'd say Peter Straub's In the Night Room. Straub's done some amazing stuff with his last 2 books and, though he gets some respect from the mainstream and publications like Locus, I think he deserves to be uttered in the same breath as the giants of the genre (Wolfe, Hand, Powers, etc .). So, though not obscure, I feel In The Night Room is under appreciated and is probably my favorite book published in '04."

Nick Mamatas suggested The Course of the Heart by M. John Harrison and Compositions for the Young and Old by Paul G. Tremblay.

Mentioned in the comments to the original post were Deadfolk by Charlie Williams, Prisoners of War by Steve Yarbrough, Double Vision by George Garrett, Axeman's Jazz by Tracy Daugherty, and D.B. by Elwood Reid.

Over at his blog, Jeff VanderMeer nominates two books he hasn't read.

And there's also a post and comments thread at Tingle Alley about the subject. (I was so glad to see TA advocating for The Plot Against America, because, as we all know, it's been neglected by evil elitists who give awards to books nobody's ever heard of. Definitely neglected. Definitely.)

16 December 2004

Mid-December SF Site

The mid-December issue of SF Site has been posted, and it includes not only my review of Alchemy, but also an interview by Jeff VanderMeer of artist Alan M. Clark and a particularly interesting and thoughtful review by Chris Przybyszewski of the new Fantasy Masterworks (UK) edition of John Gardner's Grendel. (I think Jeff Ford wrote the introduction, though Przybyszewski doesn't mention it. When I wrote about Gardner a few months ago, Jeff emailed me a draft of the introduction, and it was fascinating. Very much worth the price of admission, even if you've already got a copy of the book.)

14 December 2004

Sources of Alchemy

I just got back from chaperoning students on a field trip in Boston for two and a half days, so I haven't been able to fix an oversight from the previous post until now. I praised the little magazine Alchemy, but because there is no online presence for it, I did not have anything to link to. I intended at least to link to some places that sell copies, but was in a hurry, so didn't. Here, then, are two good places from which to purchase copies of Alchemy:
Small Beer Press

Clarkesworld Books
I don't know of any non-U.S. sources, but there may be some -- if you know of one, please add it in the comments. And you can always go searching around through Locus's list of bookstores.

(Posts of substance will resume by this weekend, I expect.)

11 December 2004

Small Press Roundup -- Now with 100% More Batshit!

By putting off other projects and not responding to email, I have managed to finish reading all of the small press SF/fantasy/whatever magazines in my possession from 2004. Here are some summary judgments:

Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet continues to be my favorite 'zine, but it had worthy competition this year. LCRW has only managed to get out one issue so far this year, because the editors, Gavin Grant and Kelly Link, apparently think they should spend time writing things themselves, publishing and publicizing books with their Small Beer Press, and preparing the fantasy part of next year's Year's Best Fantasy & Horror collection. Where they found time to put out one issue, I don't know, but issue 14 has some marvelous work in it, and no real disasters. The marvel of LCRW is the variety of material presented: everything from weird science fiction to softly odd mainstream stories. The most common sort of tales are offbeat fantasy, though, and these tend to be the best works in the 'zine, perhaps because that is what LCRW has gotten identified with, and so it's probably what most authors send them. Douglas Lain's "Music Lessons" was the highlight of issue 14 for me -- a contrapuntal story of modern music, creativity, perception, and alien abduction -- but the entire issue is worth reading, including the poetry by David Blair, Trent Walters, and Sally Bayley. (Note, too, that Matthew Latkiewicz's "Felix Soutre, Puppeteer" is listed both as fiction and nonfiction. The story/article may be too long for its own good, but I found it haunting, nonetheless.)

Say... produced one issue this year, Say...Why Aren't We Crying?, which contains the largest amount of flat-out, undeniably weird stories of any 'zine I read. (The term "batshit" came to mind -- I think it would be a better label than "slipstream" or "interstitial". Imagine this conversation: "So, what do you write?" "Mostly batshit." "Really? I love batshit! What are some of your favorite batshit stories of the year?") Which is not to say it's all bizarre -- "Black Fish" by Janet Chui, the longest story in the 'zine, is straightforward fantasy with a beginning, middle, and end, and the story on the whole is notable for the willingness Chui has to let the events develop at a seemingly natural pace, without a rush toward the climax, although there is a climax, and it's pretty climactic. But I found the most enjoyable stories to be ones I had trouble pinning down to any sort of referential reality, stories that kept shifting their balance, with sentences that flew sometimes into reveries and sometimes into the aether. "The Lethe Man" by David J. Schwartz is a phenomenally unpredictable story of amnesia, a subject I thought I had had just about enough of until I saw how Schwartz handled it. "This is a cute boy graveyard" by Jana Phipps is 13 numbered paragraphs that defy description, but interestingly so. Jude-Marie Green's "Til the Wildness Cried Aloud" is the story of a feral couch. Sonya Taaffe's "Featherweight" is densely written, with some of the finest prose between these covers, although my own enjoyment of it suffered from a personal pet peeve against stories where Love Conquers All in the end (despite the love here being pretty darn weird). Pam McNew's "Tempest in a Teacup" is a great little garble of wordplay and imagery; as such stories go, this one seems just about perfect to me. E.L. Chen provides a helpful comic expanding on some ideas from Scott McCloud, applying them to the "Why aren't we crying?" question. "Laugh, Clown, Laugh" by Mikal Trimm is another very short dose of strangeness; this one didn't work as well for me as others, but with such material opinions are even more subjective than normal (this is what happens when the beholder gets batshit in the eye). Joe Sutliff Sanders's "Beholden" is a surprisingly effective story of the struggles of working at Disneyworld, and the terrors that follow removing your mask. "Which Apes a Soul" is a far-future SF story from Mark Rich, one which is at the very least successful at conveying a sense of how very alien the future would seem to us, particularly with regard to its language. The only real dud in the issue is "Robert's Rule of Order", a horrendously bad play by Terry Bisson, who is generally a good fiction writer.

My choice of favorite story from Say...Why Aren't We Crying? is "The Better Life" by Ezra Pines, a story that defies summary. Most of the paragraphs could live as little stories on their own, but they do contribute to an overall narrative line, and though I was seldom clear where that narrative line was going or had gone, it created a joyful sense of discombobulation, not a frustrating one. Because of its rhythms and the playful scope of viewpoint that swings through vast distances and veers from the concrete to the abstract in one moment of punctuation, the following paragraph entranced me, and I read it again and again with pleasure:
A land exists somewhere I hope never to see with my living eyes where a woman resides whose hair is damp with the mist of the place and whose skin is beaded with rain and whose glance never touches mine and whose hands never move, yet whose mere presence is worse than the presence of a man with a gun, or a man with a hangover and an attitude and a gun, when that attitude has to do with you, and when that gun comes equipped with a direfully knowledgeable finger attached to the place where knowledge should be placed: for she, the woman in that land, is immense, so much so that you can never reach her across the distances of this place. You see her, think she is near; and you walk; and then you walk again; and you realize she has only grown larger and you no nearer, and you realize it will go on and on until you are no more than a flea begging entrance at the pale white coolness of the gap between her toes, there in the crushed land where she stands. I have been there in dreams.
Say...Why Aren't We Crying? is particularly notable not only for its fiction editors' commitment to the oneiric and odd, but for the poetry published with the fiction. This comes as no surprise, because Alan DeNiro is the poetry editor, and so the poetry tends to be more adventurous and innovative than the poetry in other 'zines. Michael Szewczyk's "Nets the Si'ze of Souls" impressed me most on a first read -- it's a blast of logorrhea set to stun -- but over time I became more fond of poems that hadn't clammored for my attention as openly: "Quirk" by Maurice Oliver, "Casket of the Age" by Bruce Boston, and "Les Brown's Band of Renown" by Maureen McHugh (who is best known as a fiction writer, and claims to have published only three poems, but if this is what she can do as a poet, I hope she begins to publish more).

(By the way, Christopher Rowe has some news about upcoming issues of Say..., including the next question and its attendant reading period.)

There were two issues of Flytrap this year (numbers 2 & 3 -- it's the youngster on the block), and each contained at least a couple of good pieces. Issue 2 appealed to me overall more than issue 3, but the third issue performs a vastly useful service by presenting Sonya Taaffe as the featured poet -- her work is most effective, I think, when read in a group, and so having four poems in one issue of a magazine is a great gift for readers. Issue 3 also contains Benjamin Rosenbaum's brilliant little story "Night Waking", a story that on a quick read seems inconsequential, but which, when read carefully, proves to be more substantial than many stories five times its length (the only comparison I can think of is what Hemingway accomplished in some of his shortest stories). Deborah Layne's "Hooked on a Feeling" won me over, despite skepticism I had during the first page or so, a fear that the fragments were trying to be more weighty than they were capable of being. The story is a symmetrina, a form created by Bruce Holland Rodgers, and though "Hooked on a Feeling" may, in the end, be more interesting as an exercise in the possibilities of fictional form than as substantial fiction in and of itself, I found it, on the whole, engaging and thought-provoking.

Issue 2 of Flytrap contains two particularly notable stories: "The Labyrinth Tourist" by Rudi Dornemann and "The Ideas" by David Moles. Aside from the depth of imagination, what I liked most about "The Labyrinth Tourist" was the ending. I am a curmudgeon when it comes to ending; few of them please me, because often it seems that writers of short stories try to tie too much up, and they try so hard to make sure the reader "gets it" that they squash the possibilities inherent in their story. Dornemann even gets away with something I generally hate: an ending that is a one-sentence paragraph. Not only that, it's a sentence (or fragment, depending on your persuasion) beginning with a conjunction, something bad writers often do to End Their Story Dramatically. In "The Labyrinth Tourist", though, it mostly works, because Dornemann's sentence ("And I don't get lost anymore") has a tremendous resonance and actually increases the imaginative possibilities at the end of the tale, because there are a few possible reasons for why the narrator no longer gets lost. I would have preferred it if it were part of the previous paragraph and less showy, but for a showy single-sentence paragraph at the end of a story, this one is about as good as it gets. "The Ideas" is just great fun, a wonderful answer to the horrible question often asked of writers, "Where do you get your ideas?" I wouldn't be surprised if some writers bring photocopies of this story to their next reading or book signing and pass it out to the first person who asks the inevitable question, to which they will now be able to reply, "Why, I'm so glad you asked..."

I wrote about the sixth issue of Electric Velocipede for SF Site earlier this year, and recently read issue 7, which didn't contain anything that impressed me nearly as much as Alan DeNiro's "A Keeper" from Issue 6, but I found most of the stories at least diverting, particularly "The Marsella" by Liz Williams, "Making the Butter Come" by Ren Holton, "On the Language of Alligator Twins" by Kiel Stuart, and "Dark Bloom" by Andrew Cohen, a science fictional horror story of alien invasion that is not particularly original in its concept but is quite effective in execution.

There are other 'zines and small press journals out there, some of them quite good. I recently turned in a review of Alchemy's first two issues to SF Site, but it hasn't been posted yet, so I'll simply say here that though Alchemy published only one issue this year, it's exceptional, with fine stories all around, most notably "The Venebretti Necklace" by Sarah Monette, which is a fun detective/ghost story set in a museum, and "Sand Dollars and Apple Halves", which is not only the best thing I've read by Barth Anderson, but, for my money, the best thing Alchemy has yet published -- a lyrical, emotionally affecting sort-of-fairy-tale that could easily have veered into cliche and avoids it magnificently.

Small press 'zines and journals are published as labors of love, with their publishers often actually losing money on the venture, but there's no reason to be afraid of subscribing to one or two publications, because for the small amount of money involved, you can read the sort of fiction and poetry that seldom finds its way into the major magazines -- not because it's bad, but because it's more difficult to pigeonhole and market to a broad audience. The variety of types of writing certainly can lead to lower lows than you might find in the major markets, but there is also a higher number of weirdly interesting works finding their ways into the small press publications than into the places where editors and publishers worry themselves into neurosis by fixating on how to appeal to people who think Star Wars tie-in novels and write-by-numbers fantasy trilogies are the highest form of literary pleasure. Me, I'll take batshit over the other stuff any day.

(For different views of some of the publications I've discussed, and no non-FCC-approved words, see Rich Horton's reviews of Flytrap and Electric Velocipede and Tangent's review of LCRW 14.)

10 December 2004

Linkdump

Because there's nothing new here at the moment, I'm sending you away...

Strange Horizons is surveying their readership. Go tell them you want more stuff that you want. And that you appreciate their efforts. Because you should. (Or not. Because if you're letting me control your life, then ... well ... I have a few other suggestions...)

I don't think I've praised the Censoround blog before, and I should have. In times like ours, a blog about censorship is, sadly, a busy one.

And speaking of censorship, repeat after Teresa Nielsen Hayden: Gerald Allen is stupider than dirt. (Which is insulting to dirt, I know, but work with me here, people!)

Space Art in Children's Books 1883-1974 (via Mr. Sun via Maud Newton)

Nalo Hopkinson on Ursula LeGuin's reaction to comments by the director of the TV miniseries of the Earthsea books (scroll down to the 11/13/04 announcement).

Robert Birnbaum interviews Francisco Goldman

At Crooked Timber: John Quiggan on Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and Henry Farrell on Jennifer Howard's review of said novel.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (illustrated). Lots more Munchausen links at Apothecary's Drawer Weblog.

And, finally: Yet another reason not to watch the boob tube: Bill Moyers is retiring.

08 December 2004

Openings

I've been reading The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories edited by Ben Marcus, and it's caused all sorts of conflicting, half-formed, murky thoughts for me. It's an extraordinary book in its range and ecumenical editing (it has been accurately, insightfully reviewed by Kristin Livdahl, Priya Jain, or Laird Hunt).

I tried to write a post about Charles McGrath's review in the NY Times (a review Maud Newton accurately labeled "passive aggressive"), but I failed, because I found myself repeatedly getting tangled in McGrath's incoherence.

What I discovered while writing that failed post, though, was that I wanted to say something about how stories begin. Not their gestation, but their first paragraphs. Here are some first paragraphs from books I have within arm's reach at the moment:
Two glass panes with dirt between the little tunnels from cell to cell: when I was a kid I had an ant colony.
(Samuel R. Delany, "The Star Pit")

The lucidity, the clarity of the light that afternoon was sufficient to itself; perfect transparency must be impenetrable, these vertical bars of a brass-coloured distillation of light coming down from the sulphur-yellow interstices in a sky hunkered with grey clouds that bulge with more rain. It struck the wood with nicotine-stained fingers, the leaves glittered. A cold day of late October, when the withered blackberries dangled like their own dour spooks on the discoloured brambles. There were crisp husks of beechmast and cast acorn cups underfoot in the russet slime of dead bracken where the rains of the equinox had so soaked the earth that the cold oozed up through the soles of the shoes, lancinating cold of the approaching winter that grips hold of your belly and squeezed it tight. Now the stark elders have an anorexic look; there is no much in the autumn wood to make you smile but it is not yet, not quite yet, the saddest time of the year. Only, there is a haunting sense of the imminent cessation of being; the year, in turning, turns in on itself. Introspective weather, a sickroom hush.
(Angela Carter, "The Erl-King")

Offerings the book is called. Gold lettering on a dull-blue cover. The author's full name underneath: Almeda Joynt Roth. The local paper, the Vidette, referred to her as "our poetess". There seems to be a mixture of respect and contempt, both for her calling and her sex -- or for their predictable conjuncture. In the front of the book is a photograph, with the photographer's name in one corner, and the date: 1865. The book was published later, in 1873.
(Alice Munro, "Meneseteung")

Pulling his three blunt boats out of a cold-ball sunset he came into my range. And I shuddered, even at that far out shuddery he was for me. Not since a long time had it been this way, a crackling dry hum in the air and the heart racing like a shaft cracked loose from its load and everything standing back a little, just a little back to give me more room for dread. Or was it that at such times I shrank just a little and everything stepped back thus, not really, but was the same, and I was stepping in from all sides just a little, shrinking in tight to calculate disaster? Or was it more just now that I had a death-high fever, mental fever and torn flesh-strips of the brain, an unsettling that made me see phantom things?
(David R. Bunch, "A Vision of the King")
What these openings share is precision and authority. The precision comes from the author having a clear and specific vision; the authority is the authority of imagination, of someone saying "Let's pretend..." in a voice that is both assured and alluring.

Writing teachers and textbooks often tell amateurs to begin with a hook -- grab the reader and don't let them go. (As if we go to fiction to be mugged.) Other sagely advice is similar to some recently shared with me by a well-meaning so-and-so: "In the first paragraph of a short story, most readers expect to know something about the main character and what she wants, desires, or needs to resolve."

Is it purely my contrarian nature that makes me bristle against such strictures?

The opening I quoted that seems to me least likely to rope in a reader is Alice Munro's, but it is the opening of one of the most-heralded stories of one of the most-heralded short story writers alive. It may, in fact, be the bravest, the riskiest of any of the openings here, because it is so bland, so factual -- and yet I doubt anyone who has read the whole story would say it is out of place or inappropriate. The authority here comes from a writer so confident in the story she has to tell that she is willing to let the beginning be what she knows it needs to be, rather than something more immediately eye-catching.

I've been reading a lot of stories over the past few weeks for some reviewing assignments, and I found myself skeptical whenever a story began in a way that seemed to be pandering to the reader or crying for attention. Immediately, the story had a lot to prove to me if I was going to be well-disposed toward it. I have become skeptical of openings that resemble a third-grader who sits in the first row and raises his hand so high whenever the teacher asks a question that his face turns red with the strain and he risks dislocating his arm by the force of his effort. I'm finding it even harder to keep reading stories that try to convey Important Things about their main characters in the first paragraph, not because that's a bad thing to do, but because so many people think that's the only way to begin a story.

The best openings are arrogant -- they stand out not because they scream for attention, but because the author clearly trusted their instincts. A less self-assured writer would have made Delany's syntax more ordinary, would have cut Carter's paragraph to at least a third of its length, would have jazzed up Munro's opening, and would never have dared behave as badly as David Bunch.

And thus would have been born into the world yet another competent, unnecessary story that looked a lot like a million other stories. I've written plenty such things myself, which is why I treasure writers who buck every trend they encounter and swear allegiance only to their own truth -- they are models for us all, readers and writers alike. If they get attention, it's not because they raise their hand the highest, but because the answer they offer is the best for the question at hand.

Ultra-Limited Edition Guy Davenport

I just received an email from David Eisenman, who has been helping to put together a 100-copy definitive edition of Guy Davenport's novella "Wo es War, Soll Ich Werden". Here's the official announcement:
December, 2004. A new Guy Davenport limited edition has been published by The Finial Press.

WO ES WAR, SOLL ICH WERDEN: THE RESTORED ORIGINAL TEXT presents the novella that Davenport has said is "my best shot in fiction" in a text that is 35% longer than the previously-published version.

FOR PHOTOS OF THE BOOK BEING MADE, DETAILS, AND LINK TO THE PUBLISHER, SEE www.guydavenport.com
I have praised Davenport in the past, though I have primarily known him for his criticism and have only recently begun to read his fiction. "Wo es War..." is legendary in Davenport circles, and rumors of longer versions have circulated for years.

What I most like about the new limited edition is that the publishers are committed to getting it into the hands of real Davenport enthusiasts, and will work around the financial burdens to the best of their ability. What a noble idea -- a publisher who creates beautiful, special editions and then builds the distribution around who would most appreciate the book.

07 December 2004

Constraints of Mundanity

This may be risky, but I wonder if it is possible to draw a line connecting two conversations happening at the moment...

Point A is the discussion between Dan Green and Derik Badman about what is or isn't literary constraint.

Point B is the recently-created Mundane SF Blog and the various conversations the whole concept of a Mundane SF movement has sparked.

In the Asimov's forum discussion, Jack Skillingstead makes a parenthetical remark that begins to chart a course between points A and B: "Not a bad idea in terms of a story telling net (if you try to play without a net the game gets sloppy; other nets: viewpoint/ wordcount/ beginnings-middles-etc.)"

Robert Frost once suggested that writing free verse poetry is like playing tennis without a net (wouldn't that be racquetball?), and many writers create nets for themselves of some sort or another, a way to limit the infinity of possibilities that a blank page suggests. Constraints are, obviously, one way of stringing up a net or two. For science fiction writers, the Mundane movement offers a way to limit the possibilities before the work begins. This may be useful, perhaps even necessary.

The question becomes, then, how important are such things to readers? I know plenty of people who couldn't care less what constraints authors pose for themselves, any more than they care about whether they write on a typewriter or with blood pricked from their middle finger. The final product, the written work, is what matters to most readers. The constraints can be interesting to discuss, interesting to philosophize and theorize about (and Derik has proved this with his MadInkBeard weblog brilliantly -- I thought it would be interesting for a couple of days, and I have found it to be consistently interesting for months now), but the work itself is the most compelling focus.

Mundane SF is a little different, because there probably exists more of an audience that wants most of its literary diet to be science fiction that is plausible or near-future than there is an audience that wants most of its literary diet to be works written under specific constraints, restraints, and frustraints (although the New Formalists might make up a good part of that audience).

My own feelings about both the idea of constraints and the idea of Mundane SF is basically agnostic, although the agnosticism is mostly overtaken by indifference. While I was tempted to say, "Whatever, man, just so long as it produces, like, good writing, y'know?" I'm entirely aware that "good writing" is an almost uselessly subjective term. Many movements claim their way is the only way to write "well" -- a claim that, thankfully, the Mundane folks have not made. I realized after more thought that while I find constraints interesting to talk about, I'm not much interested in Mundane SF as a topic, a confession I am a bit wary of making because many of the people who have allied themselves to the cause and drizzled on the barricades are writers whose works, on the whole, I very much enjoy and admire.

My problem is, I just don't care whether fiction is plausible, realistic, or believable. I want it to be imaginative in as many ways as it possibly can be, because I, personally, will forgive almost anything else if there seems to be a unique and powerful imagination behind a particular piece of writing. Frankly, any movement that excludes Cordwainer Smith is not one I want to give much time to, whether it be the movement of the Literary Realists or the movement of the SF Realists.

Constraints in the work of Cordwainer Smith -- now that's an idea I'd be interested in pursuing...

Notable Moments of December 7

Some of my favorite people were born on December 7: Tom Waits, Noam Chomsky, my mother...

In addition to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, some other things happened on this day in history. Willa Cather and Leigh Brackett were born; Thomas Nast, Rube Goldberg, Thornton Wilder, and Robert Graves died. In 1872, according to a correspondent to the Birmingham Morning News, people saw "something like a haycock hurtling through the air. Like a meteor it was accompanied by fire and a dense smoke and made a noise like a railway train. 'It was sometimes high in the air and sometimes near the ground.' The effect was tornado-like: trees and walls were knocked down. It's a late day now to try to verify this story, but a list is given of persons whose property was injured. We are told that this thing then disappeared 'all at once.'" In 1900, Scientific American reported that a "fountain of light [was] observed to play upon the planet Mars for 70 minutes." In 1995, Galileo discovered Jupiter.

An interesting day, overall.

06 December 2004

Most Neglected Book of the Year

All sorts of best of the year lists have been appearing recently, and Jonathan Strahan has been thinking about a few of them. He poses a good question:
Given that I've just embarked on helping to compile Locus's annual recommended reading issue, I'm curious what blog readers think of such things. Are they worthwhile? Are they anything more than fun?
Personally, I like seeing all the lists, but purely out of interest in what people hold onto after a year of reading. If they are worthwhile for me, they're worthwhile in pointing out books I might have neglected otherwise.

Therefore, why don't we encourage more "most unjustly neglected books of the year" lists? I've read more stories than books this year, so my own opinion is nearly useless, though if forced to choose, I'd say the book I read this year that deserves more attention than it has gotten so far is probably The Labyrinth by Cathrynne M. Valente, although it has gotten some good word-of-mouth. I realize it's a book that will appeal to a small audience, one willing to be entranced by language, but I have found since reading it that much of the book has stuck with me more vividly than many, many other things I read this year. The runner-up for most unjustly neglected book would be Travel in the Mouth of the Wolf by Paul Fattaruso, but I actually saw that one at a bookstore the other day, which is not true for the Valente, so The Labyrinth wins.

Many of you, my dear readers, have read far more books than I this year, so what would you suggest? The comments link has been a little buggy recently, so feel free to email me with recommendations and I will post a list a week from now. If there is one book-length work of fiction from this year that you could immediately double the sales of, what would it be? (Other than your own book, if you published one!)

05 December 2004

ParkeHarrison




Since discovering their work in Orion Magazine a year or so ago, I have noticed the photographs of Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison here, there, and everywhere. Many of the photographs seem oddly just right, revealing a world between the lines of our own, a shadowy place that is part past and part future, and yet oddly immediate. There's a fine mix of whimsy and gravitas, too, as if the world were falling apart and would only hold together if everyone laughed a little harder.

There is a book of the ParkeHarrisons' work, The Architect's Brother, that I have not seen, but I expect it would make a fine gift if you're looking for something to give someone with a taste for dreams and nightmares. Currently, the ParkeHarrisons' photographs can be seen in Massachusetts at the DeCordova Museum, and the Boston Globe has decided it's worthy of an article. The Providence Phoenix also has written about the ParkeHarrisons, and there's an interesting review of the show at the blog Modern Kicks.

02 December 2004

December Ideomancer

Ideomancer, which used to be monthly, appears quarterly these days, but the fiction is still quite strong and the design pleasing. The best piece in the new issue by far is Chris Barzak's Vanishing Point, a reprint originally published in a "speculative literature" issue of the Canadian journal Descant. The ending of the story doesn't quite work for me (it's a little too pat, a little too easy), but everything leading up to it I found mesmerizing and emotionally affecting. Parts are humorous and absurd, though overall the story is quite sad. It does what good fantasy so often does: it finds concrete correlations for abstract emotional states.

Anyone who reads weblogs (yes, you!) will also want to read Too Many Yesterdays, Not Enough Tomorrows by N.K. Jemisin, a story that is better than its title, mixing speculations on quantum physics with the alienation of the internetted to create a truly unique apocalyptic purgatory.

There's also a strangely Arthurian story by Rudi Dornemann, who seems to me to be a new writer very much worth watching, though this story seems minor compared to some of his other recent publications; and a bit of odd anthropological science fiction, The Watching People by Paul Burger. I have developed a complete aversion to anthropological SF, so can't offer any comment on the story; I suspect if you like that sort of thing you'll like this one. Also in the issue are interviews with Larry Niven and Donato Giancola.

01 December 2004

A Quarter Million Fanzines

If you have a few thousand dollars to spare, you should consider bidding on over 250,000 science fiction fanzines for sale on eBay between now and December 8. Somebody should get a library or institution of some sort to bid on these -- this sounds like a unique and valuable collection.

(via Boing Boing)

Mid-December SF Site

The latest SF Site has been posted, with various interviews and reviews, including my own review of Neal Barrett, Jr.'s Prince of Christler-Coke. (Update 12/3: Rick Whitten-Klaw let me know that The Prince of Christler-Coke began as a short story, and that story just happens to be posted at Revolution SF. I much, much prefer the book as a short story. Thanks, Rick!)

I was also glad to see a new piece by Trent Walters, an introduction to anime. I've seen about half of the films he discusses, and agree with him almost completely (although I'd say I like Princess Mononoke equally to Spirited Away, not more than, and also have watched Miyazaki's Castle in the Sky numerous times with great enjoyment. But flying cities always make me happy for some reason.)

30 November 2004

Multiple Reviews of Leviathan 4

Nick Mamatas, in his capacity as occasional publicist/pusher for Night Shade Books, gave out copies of Leviathan 4 to various bloggers to review. The results are beginning to trickle in, with reviews from Affinity8 (Sandra McDonald) and Mastadge. The more I read and review, the more I think nearly every book needs at least a couple of different reviewers, and this is especially true for anthologies, and especially especially true for anthologies of unconventional fiction, which Leviathan 4 is. My own review of the book will be published by SF Site in late December or January (although if you read one of the above reviews carefully you'll find a link to the draft. I don't mind, but the review hasn't yet been officially posted, so don't tell the boss!)

Update 12/1: Kevin Donihe adds his thoughts on the book.

A Conversation with Sonya Taaffe

Sonya Taaffe is a young woman with an immensely bright future. Though she has only been publishing for a few years, her first collection of stories was recently accepted by Prime and is scheduled to be released in April. Earlier, she won a Rhysling Award for poetry, and this month the third issue of Flytrap came out, with Sonya as the first featured poet to be chosen by the magazine.

Sonya and I first met at WorldCon, when we happened to be part of a conversation and she read my nametag and said, "You wrote nice things about me!" We didn't get much time to talk then, but later we discovered we would both be at a reading in Cambridge, and I asked Sonya if she would be willing to be interviewed. She was, and so after the reading we got tea and sat out in Harvard Square and talked. During our conversation, a bunch of frat boys in Halloween costumes ran around where we were sitting and screamed and yelled at people, fire engines roared by with their sirens on, and various other noises made much of what I recorded difficult to figure out, so what follows is the result of editing by both Sonya and me as we tried to reconstruct our conversation. (I've also edited it for length and coherence, because we talked -- rapidly, firing ideas and allusions back and forth -- for an hour and a half.)


MC: How did you start writing?

ST: I always told stories, as soon as I could speak, as soon as I knew what language was for. My father provided me with great incidental training for this. We would play a game where he would tell the first half of a story and then ask me to finish it; and so I finished stories. Some of these would go on for weeks, these extended, episodic, operatic stories between me and my father. I must have been about eight when I learned to type. My handwriting was abysmal.

MC: Where did science fiction and fantasy come in?

ST: I don't know if it ever came in. It might just have been what was there, what I read. I learned to read somewhere around the age of four, and I read everything I could get my hands on, but what I chiefly remember from elementary school is a lot of mythology, a lot of folklore. In second grade, I had D'Aulaires' Norse Gods and Giants out from the school library for the whole year. I was obsessed with any stories of mermaids and the sea, whatever culture they came from. I think I started to read science fiction and fantasy simply because they drew me in.

MC: Was it just the imaginative qualities, or...?

ST: It might have been some kind of outgrowth from the myths and folklore. It wasn't that I didn't read my share of mainstream teenage novels, but I was so much less concerned with cheating boyfriends than what cats would say, if they could talk.

MC: So the real world didn't pull you in?

ST: Not so much. The real world interests me. Most mainstream-fictional treatments of it do not.

MC: How did you get interested in classics?

ST: I studied Latin in high school and loved it. (I had all that mythology floating around in my head anyway.) It helped that, in addition to finding the language itself fascinating, I had a fantastic teacher: I blame him fully for the path my academic life has taken. He would write the first five lines of the Odyssey on the board, in Greek, so that I had memorized how to say them phonetically long before I could actually read Greek. When I came to Brandeis, I was still under the delusion that I'd major in Music or English; but I started Greek my first semester there and kept up with Latin, and by the time I declared for Classics at the end of my first year, I don't think a single person in the department was surprised. Comparative Literature was the only other discipline that might possibly have seduced me away. I am much less interested in music theory than in performance.

MC: Is there any desire to combine your interests through your writing, or do you like them as separate entities?

ST: I don't have a specific desire to combine them, perhaps because I don't see why I would need to. There are definitely some places where they overlap: "Return on the Downward Road" was written while taking a magnificent class called "Night, Death, and the Devil" and derives directly from looking at aspects of the diabolic in literature, art, and music; "Like the Stars and the Sand" was sparked by the ballad "Thomas the Rhymer" and a poem by Catullus; "Etemmu" is the immediate result of a class last fall on Mesopotamian literature; I would not have written "Shade and Shadow" without reading Book XI of the Odyssey. But I don't feel that my poetry, for instance, needs to come straight out of my classical research. I love H.D.'s work, but I don't need to imitate her.

MC: It's interesting that you seem to be equally a poet and a fiction writer. And I wonder if the two feed off of each other, or distract each other, or...

ST: Well, I didn't think of myself as any kind of poet for a very long time. I'd written god-awful reams of poetry throughout elementary school, but mercifully gave it up very soon. So I wrote stories all through middle school and high school, but I didn't even consider poetry -- although I liked to read it -- until my first year at Brandeis. That winter, a friend of mine gave me Inventions of the March Hare, a book of T.S. Eliot's early and unpublished poetry. I have no idea what relays that tripped in my brain, but I started writing poetry in the spring. Even so, up until this last year, I didn't think of myself as a poet. I was a fiction writer who occasionally wrote poems. But at this point I've published more than twice as many poems as I have short stories, so I should probably rethink that one . . .

MC: What can you do in poetry that you can't with fiction?

ST: You had to ask that! I think poems lend themselves more readily to single crystallized moments, mood set-pieces, than short stories do. You don't necessarily expect or demand plot from a poem; fiction tends to want more of a narrative. Personally, I also find that the different forms allow different kinds of language, different structures. You can write a poem consisting of one sentence only. It doesn't have to be a short sentence. With fiction, however, this approach tends to result in all sorts of red-ink editorial markings and comments like, "Punctuate, for God's sake!"

MC: What is the impulse, then, that causes you to make something into a story rather than a poem?

ST: How it comes out in the writing. I can have ideas, fine, but these go nowhere without language. The words are always first. Then sometimes what shows up is language with no backstory or discernible plot or clear ideas of character, so I write until I figure out what's going on (and if I'm lucky, these questions resolve themselves rather than collapsing halfway through and leaving me confused). When the language arrives with cadences to it and one immediate vision, that tends to mean I'm looking at a poem rather than a piece of fiction. When I have a distinct concept of characters and how they interact and where they might arrive, it's probably a story. Every now and then, a piece can go either way. I've had poems that have evolved into stories, and some of the flash fiction started its life as poetry and then discovered it was very unhappy doing that.

MC: How did you first discover markets for your work?

ST: Spicy Green Iguana saved my life. I had a Writer's Market, but after a couple of years it was completely obsolete for my purposes. I had subscriptions to Realms of Fantasy and F&SF, so I began with them, but I had much more success when I started looking for market guidelines online.

MC: When did you start sending things out?

ST: July 21, 1998. My first acceptance was in January 2001. That fall, September and November, I had my first publications: "Shade and Shadow" in Not One of Us, "Turn of the Century, Jack-in-the-Green" in Mythic Delirium, and "Constellations, Conjunctions" in Maelstrom Speculative Fiction -- which promptly died. I also had a poem, "Hallows," in Glyph #7, and that folded soon after.

MC: So you're the Typhoid Mary of the small press! Actually, I think that's one of the perils of writing for the small press -- the markets come and go, nothing's particularly stable. How did you discover the Science Fiction Poetry Association?

ST: I found Star*Line first, on Ralan.com, right around the time when Tim Pratt began editing it. I didn't join SFPA until "Matlacihuatl's Gift" had won a Rhysling Award and I thought it would be really tacky to win an award from an association and then not belong to it. Besides, I like having a subscription to Star*Line.

MC: Your poetry seems to be very carefully structured and shaped. One of the things that first attracted me to it, particularly when I read a few poems together, which is the best way, was that I noticed a real sense of the line as much as anything, and I wondered how much you think about that -- how much just comes out because that's the way it is, rather than premeditated?

ST: I don't think about meter in the sense of "long syllable, short syllable, spondee," but I do think a lot about cadence and rhythm -- not in the sense of plotting out words to fill a particular line, but does it sound right once I've written it? So I read back over the line, and the preceding line, and the line before that, to make sure. Not only do the images need to be right, the language has to suit. One doesn't work without the other.

MC: How did the collection come about? Did Sean Wallace (of Prime) approach you?

ST: I met Sean at NECON in July. Totally out of the blue. We talked at lunch, and he ended up reading some of my stories. (Reason #1087 why it's a good idea to carry one's laptop everywhere.)

MC: And he said, "Wow, you've got enough for a book"?

ST: More or less, actually. I don't think he had ever heard of me before.

MC: A question I always feel obligated to ask, but always dread, because writers never know quite what to make of it, is: What writers do you consider your influences?

ST: Angela Carter. She did something to my brain. I had read one story of hers, "The Lady of the House of Love," and never really looked her up; but then I reread the story in my first year at Brandeis and it amazed me, that someone could make language that voluptuous, overblown, and precise all at the same time. So I hunted down The Bloody Chamber, and promptly went out and read everything by Angela Carter that I could find. Even if I can't trace the effects, her work almost certainly influenced my ideas about language, how you can handle it, the ways you can create story. "The Erl-King" is one of the best evocations of autumn I have ever read, and it certainly tells a story, but it has nothing even resembling a traditional linear narrative.

People I like? The list goes on. Harlan Ellison, Theodore Sturgeon, Ursula K. Le Guin, Tanith Lee, Patricia McKillip, Susan Cooper, Diana Wynne Jones, Jane Yolen, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Kathe Koja. Without a doubt, many others that aren't coming to mind right now. And Peter Beagle. Absolutely Peter Beagle.

MC: What Ellison?

ST: Anything I could find. I ransacked used book stores. "Constellations, Conjunctions" was written while I was reading Slippage for the first time, so I can only assume there was some effect . . . Theodore Sturgeon was another crucial exposure to what people can do with words for character and detail, texturing scenes without handing the reader gigantic information dumps. Did I name Mary Gentle already? I really love her.

MC: I haven't read any Mary Gentle. Where should I start?

ST: Read Rats & Gargoyles. Read Ash: A Secret History. Her latest novel, 1610: A Sundial in a Grave, is extremely good. Also brick-thick.

MC: If language is something you prize, then, well, you're working in a field that is not known for people being overly attentive to language, it's often about setting, plot, ideas--

ST: Well, my immediate reaction to that is, "No, it's not!" because I read any number of genre writers whose attention to language and love for it is visible. But I also know that I don't read everyone.

MC: Are there writers outside the category of SF and fantasy that have had an effect for you?

ST: I'm sure they exist. Unfortunately, all my examples are people like E.T.A. Hoffmann, Edgar Allan Poe, and Mikhail Bulgakov (I love Master and Margarita.) Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy probably don't count as science fiction and fantasy. Yury Olyesha, who wrote Envy -- another novel that might be fantastic or might not, depending on how much you think is happening for real and how much inside the narrator's head. Marlowe's Doctor Faustus is one of my favorite plays, but that has to count as fantasy. I read a lot of Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Christopher Fry. The Lady's Not for Burning is amazing, and nobody I meet ever seems to have read it. Greer Gilman, apropos of nothing, is probably also a formative influence. She's one of those people-- "Whoa! Words can do that!"

MC: When did you first encounter her?

ST: Probably about four years ago. Moonwise was actually a windfall from a marvelous used book store up in New Hampshire. Admittedly, she can't be formative because I was already writing by that point; but she was definitely an education, as well as beautifully intricate to read.

For poetry, most of the people I read are dead: T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Robinson Jeffers, H.D. I recently acquired Sylvia Plath's The Colossus, and I like that immensely. She has a very tactile, textured approach to language, words with weight and heft and angles and hard corners, a sort of spatial feel. She seems as much concerned with the sounds and shapes of her poetry as with its visual effects. But I love Seamus Heaney, and he is still alive. Of Ursula Le Guin's poetry, I have read only Hard Words and Sixty Odd; some of it does nothing for me, and some of it I really like.

MC: Do you feel that way about her fiction, too?

ST: Less so: her fiction tends to be more on-target for me. My all-time favorite is probably the Orsinian Tales, which is not fantastic in any sense except that the country in which all the stories take place never existed. Malafrena doesn't have that effect, for whatever reason. I think it's because Malafrena reads like a nineteenth century novel without the excuse of the nineteenth century.

I should also mention Alfred Bester, someone else I read very early. The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination were huge influences.

MC: And Cordwainer Smith?

ST: Oh, yes. Probably my last year of high school, we inherited a large box of books from a family friend; it contained, among other things, a paperback of Norstrilia. The cover illustration was clearly done by somebody who hadn't even bothered to open the book, but I read it anyway and was completely and instantly hooked. "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell" is still one of my all-time favorite short stories. The way he tells his stories and handles his audience, all the ellipses in the narrative and the skips over what is purportedly common knowledge -- "You already know this story, but..." -- and the sheer, total weirdness of everything he writes. I love his work. But Alfred Bester might have been the first writer who showed me that prose did not all have to look like a critical essay. Number signs were acceptable, text written backwards, letters growing psychedelically larger across a page...

MC: Are you ready for another unfair question?

ST: Sure.

MC: In a world where reality is itself often horrible, why does fantasy have any value?

ST: Well, let's see. I suppose if I said its value was escapist, I'd have to go home and shoot myself in the head. But I don't think that's the point. So the world is horrible; why should that mean that nothing other than the horrible world has any value?

MC: I read one very caustic review of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, I think, that called it the "Harry Potter effect for adults" and said that in a world like ours, adults don't have any right to be spending time on fantasy. It's childish, it's infantile.

ST: Don't have any right? Wow. I wonder if they had a paperback slapped out of their hands one too many times as a child... There may be a valid issue of what you can afford to spend time on at that minute, if you have work that needs doing, if you have projects that require your attention. But that's an entirely different question from, do you have a right to a world inside your head that is not the world outside? "A world like ours"? I don't know why there's this assumption that only that which is painful or difficult is real and thereby worthy of discussion or time.

Nor is the point that all fantasy is cheerful escapist stuff, because if anything is well written--at least from my perspective--it should contain complications and moral strangeness and problematic questions, because these are an accurate reflection of what happens in our world. Fantasy, however, permits these reflections to be explored in ways that would be impossible otherwise. But I don't know why this should be what people focus on when they're looking for a reason to read fantasy.

MC: It's a peculiarly American sentiment, I think, that realism is the highest goal, the highest level, and if you're aiming for that, hooray, and anything below that is somehow lesser in seriousness.

ST: Blame the Puritan work ethic. Where do you think it starts?

MC: In some ways the Puritans, but I think it really started with a push in the early part of the 20th century for a more industrial, scientific nation. In some ways we can just blame Hugo Gernsback. I blame him for a lot of things! For founding Amazing Stories and creating the term "science fiction" (well, "scientifiction") -- his timing was perfect. Technology was going to save everyone, and he was playing into that in a way that separated a specific sort of content from a mainstream that had existed since the dawn of writing and storytelling. (I'm generalizing horribly.) In many ways, Mark Twain was the last popular and respected American writer who delved into both the realistic and the fantastic whenever he damn well felt like it. From Twain we go to Theodore Dreiser and the rise of realism, which before then was a kind of cottage industry. Well, again, I'm generalizing.

ST: The realism ghetto. I really need to study more eras than the Romantic! I can talk about literature of the fantastic and the grotesque in the middle of the nineteenth century, sure, but after that? Er, there's now . . .

MC: I think now is a very interesting time, because realism has kind of run its course.

ST: Of course, now people need to keep finding names for the breakdown. It's interstitial, it's New Weird -- no! Stop genre-ing it! I have the same reaction when people ask me about prose poetry: I don't think you need to slap a taxonomy on everything. It's okay if it doesn't have a genus and species. You can just read it.

MC: A poet I know, she's sort of a formalist, and she despairs of the inability to define poetry anymore. She says the last thing she's fallen back on is line breaks, that poetry has line breaks, and therefore she refuses to use the term prose poetry, because it finally shatters the last bit of taxonomy she has.

ST: I don't have a problem, I think, with poetry sans line breaks. Once you get past lines imposed by metrical form, anyway, people are going to say, "Well, that's just there for the hell of it." Which I find equally false, because you can still have rhythm and reason for separation of lines that is not based on whether you can finish a proper six feet of whatever meter before you run out of line. I think the definition of poetry is more about diction and the way the language is structured. But I admit, I have not thought very much about this.

MC: So where do you go from here? Have you planned a whole career path in your head, or do you just take it a day at a time? Do you have ambitions?

ST: I have not planned a whole career path! My ambitions? I have a pair of stories at Realms of Fantasy that I would like to see accepted... I would like to write well enough and consistently enough that, even if I cannot make a living from it, I can devote a large portion of my life to writing -- because, frankly, I will in any case, and I might as well have a structured space in which to do so.

Winning a Rhysling Award sort of blew the top off my head. I had never really thought about having a wide enough audience to win any kind of award. And now "Matlacihuatl's Gift" will be reprinted in the Nebula Awards Showcase 2005 in March, and I think that in some ways I'm still not acclimatized to the fact that maybe more people than my family, my friends, and three editors actually like my work. I really need to get over this soon.

MC: There are a lot of people who might think of killing you in your sleep for the amount of success you've had this early on in your life.

ST: Make me paranoid. Go ahead.

I'm sort of isolated, I think. Up until this year, I haven't had that much contact with other published writers. I have friends who write, and some of them are very good indeed. Jeannelle Ferreira, whom I met at Brandeis, just sold her first novel to Prime this fall. It's called A Verse from Babylon, I've seen it essentially from the first few paragraphs of fragmentary form to its final state, it's a wonderful book, and I recommend that you run out and purchase a copy as soon as humanly possible. But until very recently, she was the closest I had to an established writer to bounce ideas off of. So I don't know if mine is a normal trajectory, or if this is how the process is supposed to work, or how any of this works, because I don't have the right information.

MC: There's a density to your work that is rare. In a good way. Have you gotten interesting rejections? Have you found markets that are totally wrong for you, along with the markets that are totally right?

ST: Thank you! I had a piece of flash fiction rejected once because the editor thought I ended the story just when things were starting to get interesting . . . F&SF has never taken anything of mine, and I've never had a useful rejection letter from them. It doesn't help that two of the rejections made me think that somebody had just skimmed the story. I'm sure I'm maligning F&SF, but...

MC: When do you know when a piece is working?

ST: When there's language that feels like it's simply there, opposed to language that is being cranked out for the sake of putting something down on the page. If there are characters involved, when I feel that they are being true to themselves; when the actions arise out of the characters rather than from the characters being put through their paces for the sake of the plot.

MC: Do you think in terms of imagery?

ST: Language and imagery. A lot of my stories start--sometimes in the middle--and I have no idea where they're going to end up. Stories whose arc is entirely plotted are very rare for me. Usually I have a beginning and some idea of what happens along the way, but sometimes there's only a beginning and an end, or I have no clue what the end is. I can be relatively certain up to a point in the story, but after that, it's all up for grabs.

MC: How do you structure a story? Do you think of narrative arc or character arc?

ST: Character, I suppose, but often the structure develops as the story progresses. If I think of arc while writing, it's never in terms of where the characters should be at what given point in the story. I can't write outlines. For papers, yes; but they murder stories. Outlining is death. If a piece is really working, it pulls itself along, and I don't need to think about the mechanics.

MC: Do you think you'll be working on a novel?

ST: Everybody wants to know this! I don't think that I think in novel form. I feel very comfortable writing short stories. That said, I am working on a piece right now that I thought wanted to be a novella but has sort of spiraled off into another length--provided it doesn't die along the way, which happens all too often. But I'll follow it along until it stops and get back to you.