31 January 2004

Film Structure

From Ron Silliman comes news (to me) of plans to make a movie of Samuel Delany's Dhalgren. If the film is even slightly faithful to the book, it would be quite a fascinating piece of work. Of course, it could come to nothing, too, since so few films which even make it past the point of having screenplays commissioned ever actually make it to the screen, but we can keep our fingers crossed.

(In other news, this summer will see a film of Asimov's I, Robot starring Will Smith and apparently not based on Harlan Ellison's screenplay, first published in Asimov's and then as a book.)

The post with the reference to a film of Dhalgren is actually a letter from the screenwriter, who is responding to an excellent post in which Silliman figured out the standard three-act structure of commercial films.

Having studied playwrighting and screenwriting at NYU for three years, this is a subject I know well. Being an inveterate contrarian, I rebelled as much as possible against the idea of a three-act structure, which most of the teachers of screenwriting forced us to abide by, and have since come to resent it beyond all reason. Like any formula, it's perfectly capable of producing very interesting films, but is also, in general, a way for writers to become lazy and not think closely about structure beyond how to chop and sculpt their story to fit into the parameters of the three acts. Great writing doesn't come from fitting something into a formula, it comes from thinking both about structure and content and striving to let the two support and inform each other. Sometimes the effect will be a three-act style, sometimes not.

But the audience becomes accustomed to the style most often presented to it, and so films which violate the three-act structure tend to alienate mass audiences, because the audience members arrive to the theatre like strict Platonists, the universal "good movie" structure stuck in their heads, any violation from it befuddling. Any work both teaches an audience how to read it and helps create an audience for it, and the prevalence of the three-act structure has taught millions of people how to read and interpret films, thus blinding many of them to any other possibilities.

Silliman ends his post about structure with two paragraphs which summarize the problems facing anyone who wants to break away from dominant (and dominating) structures of writing:
One problem that any serious post-avant writing confronts is that, over time, readers come to understand the landmarks to any new terrain. What was comically misidentified in the 1970s becomes instantly recognizable just 25 years later. In order to keep it new, the writer (me or you or whomever) must go beyond the exoskeletal components of structure to create a sense of liveliness internally -- through word choices, sentence juxtapositions, the underlying logic. I obviously have a serious bias towards building in devices -- like the "new sentence" -- that block or at least slow the integration of the text, the point at which it moves from the first of my three mock stages into the moving machinery one. Even as a reader, I am more apt than not to avoid reading the title until the very end of the poem & oftentimes not even then. I’ve gone through entire books without taking note of a title. I simply find them too confining. And I guess that my own titles have a tendency to point anywhere but the text.

The logic behind all this isn’t newness for the sake of novelty, some sort of attention deficit approach to contemporary meaning, but rather to maximize the reader’s (& my own) attentiveness to detail. That’s what gets lost when a reader gets too comfortable with the landmarks of the poem -- why, for example, it’s so very hard to write a good haiku -- just as it’s what gets lost when you get too familiar with a landscape or city. Slushing around Chicago in the snow last weekend was a great reminder of just how awake one feels when confronted with so much new information.
Isn't the challenge to the SF writer to awaken readers by confronting them with new information -- new imaginings and ways of imagining? Traditional structures, then, may only hamper writers from communicating with readers, because the traditional structure will lull a reader into missing everything important in the writing. (Of course, using traditional structure to play around with readers' expectations can be a lot of fun, too, and one that many SF writers are quite skilled at -- think of so many stories by Fredric Brown which rely on a reader's intuitive grasp of where a story is going and how it has been set up to then create a surprise ending.)

Or it may be that for the majority of stories, a traditional structure is the one which best serves the tale. What does that say about the stories we want to tell?

30 January 2004

David Markson

Mark Sarvas links to a review of Vanishing Point, a new novel by one of the odder writers out there, David Markson, whose books tend to be ostensibly random accumulations of fragmentary information which, after twenty or fifty pages, begin to suggest form and patterns and then, more often than not, end up being surprisingly powerful by the last page.

Markson's novel Wittgenstein's Mistress is one of the greatest post-apocalyptic/last-person-on-Earth books I've ever encountered (and it may not be post-apocalyptic at all, since that judgment is left to the reader), one of the only books I've read which simultaneously conveys senses of claustrophobia, agoraphobia, and endlessly expansive loneliness along with subtle humor, lightness of style, and trivial erudition. The situation in Wittgenstein's Mistress grounds Markson's experimental structure and allows resonances beyond what he was able to achieve in the more hermetic situations of the novels which followed it, but they're all worth encountering.

29 January 2004

The Sledgehammer of Fantastic Reality

Tim Burton has made some wonderful films, particularly his early work (Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands hold special places in my heart), and despite the execrable Planet of the Apes remake, I've generally thought of him as one of the great makers of SF films.

And then I saw Big Fish, which is currently in theatres. The first half is charming, though lacking in any sort of tension, but the second half -- and, in particular, the last twenty minutes or so -- is one messy ball of ghastly, saccharine goo. It's worse than Spielberg at his most manipulative and meretricious, and demonstrates utter contempt for the intelligence and imagination of the audience.

Burton and his screenwriter (John August), perhaps with the assistance of the original novel (I haven't read it), have bungled a perfectly respectable premise by smashing it beneath a sledgehammer of reality and trite moral proclamations. The central idea of a father who tells so many tall tales that his family ultimately feels like they don't know him is a fine concept to work from, and one which leads to a couple of marvelous scenes (as well as others which are too long or too undeveloped), but in the second half of the movie the story makes the mistake of answering every question it has raised. By the time the credits finally roll, every plot point has been neatly tied up, the predictable reconciliation of father and son has occurred, and the tall tales have proved to be closer to truth than previously expected. It's all so sweet that a gallon of espresso couldn't wash the aftertaste away.

What Burton has done is destroy all ambiguity in his story and remove the audience's participation in the construction of the imagined reality -- and it is exactly that participation which differentiates art that respects its audience from art that condescends to it. It's a totalitarian aesthetic at heart, an aesthetic which seeks one response from an audience, producing work which says, "Feel this!" at predicted moments rather than opening opportunities for individual response. Big Fish even goes so far as to offer a tidy little moral of a voiceover at the very end, just in case someone who fell asleep hadn't realized what It Was All About (which any sentient creature ought to have been able to do within, at the most, half an hour).

If you want to compare Big Fish to a film with some similar themes, but which respects and challenges its audience, making it, despite imperfections, a work of art rather than claptrap, watch Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Gilliam is one of the great directors of fantasy -- I've written before about his masterpiece, Brazil -- because he uses fantasy for multiple purposes: for the fun of it, first of all, but also to investigate the entire concept of why we as human beings need fantasy and imagination; and then he allows enough ambiguity and complexity into his fantasies to allow viewers to construct their own imaginings of his imaginings, which is the great joy of experiencing fantastic works. Gilliam said somewhere that he likes to include in every film he makes at least one element which simply can't be explained, and that desire is exactly what makes his work so vastly superior to even Burton's best movies. Gilliam is a filmmaker of generosity, one who fills every frame with more than can be seen at once, making his visions and creations ones which reward repeated viewings. The first time I saw Baron Munchausen I liked it but didn't feel like I "got" it, so I watched it again and liked it more, then again and again, until by now it gives me tremendous pleasure, because each viewing is a different experience.

The thought of ever having to sit through Big Fish again, on the other hand, is nauseating.

28 January 2004

On Digests and Digestion

Over at s1ngularity::criticism there's been a discussion of the value or lack of value of the digest-sized SF magazines (Asimov's, Analog, and Fantasy & Science Fiction), their current blandness or excitement, etc. It started with this post from Gabe Chouinard, to which I too-quickly added a comment of "Hurray! Yes! Down with the system!" or somesuch thing, being an inveterate knee-jerk revolutionary. As I read more of the posts, I began to think more clearly about my own reservations about the digests, as well as what I like about them, which, it turns out, is quite a bit.

First, there's a certain bit of nostalgia. The digests are what brought me to SF. It was a copy of Asimov's loaned to me by my mother's boss, who thought I might like such things, that got me interested in what "science fiction" is, an interest which has continued, with occasional breaks, for nearly twenty years.

But nostalgia isn't what keeps me subscribing, despite all my various inconsidered kvetches about the apparent lack of bravery of the editors (for all I know, they could be very brave people, and I, in their positions, would be publishing considerably worse material). No, I subscribe because there are a couple of authors whose work I don't ever want to miss, and because I like to see what new sorts of writers are popping up amidst the more established group. It's one thing to meet new writers in edgy publications, but it's quite another to see what new writers do in established, traditional markets.

Some people have complained about the format of the digests, but this doesn't bother me too much, though I recognize their difficulty in being seen on bookstore magazine racks. I like their portability, though I did prefer the size and feel Asimov's and Analog had back in the '80s to what they have now. F&SF is pretty much as it's always been, though thankfully the two-columned approach of the '50s-'80s is no longer with us for the fiction. Perhaps, though, the appeal of the format for me is also a product of nostalgia.

What, though, would be a better format? People have suggested the zines as models (Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet being one of the most prominent), and while I like a lot of the fun the zines have with their layout, I still find the digests a bit easier to read. Perhaps that's just me. Perhaps I'm becoming an old fogey.

Gabe continues at s1ngularity with a post about the "placid core" and the "lunatic fringe" (great terms, though misleading, as most great terms are). Be sure to read the comments thread as well -- the value of the kind of generality-based, passionate bomb-throwing that Gabe has done is in the reactions it provokes and the discussion which develops.

The best thing to come out of it all, it seems to me, is praise for Shawna McCarthy's years at Asimov's. If we're looking for a model of good editing -- that is, editing which serves both writers and readers, and a wide variety of both -- then we could do worse than to read her issues of Asimov's. Or Cele Goldsmith's issues of Amazing. Or Avram Davidson's issues of F&SF.

There's no need to demonize the digests -- overall, each year they do produce a healthy amount of strong stories, and serve as the spine of the SF short story world, a world which is small enough and endangered enough to deserve protection. We need digests to function as a moderate mainstream, and we need the lively young turks on sidelines to be clamoring for change and revolution so that the mainstream doesn't get too polluted with its own effluent.

Finally, here's a question I don't have an answer to, and would love to know: How many of the writers who are regulars in the more avant-garde (for lack of a better term) small press markets regularly submit their work to the digests or other major markets, and how often do they get rejected? Are interesting writers not sending their work to those markets because they are more interested in supporting small press endeavors? If the digests are publishing repetitive or dull stories, could it be because they need to fill their pages and so now and then have to settle for familiar or unexciting tales? Blaming the editors seems too easy to me.

26 January 2004

"Only Partly Here" by Lucius Shepard

Since I was critical of Lucius Shepard's recent "A Walk in the Garden", I thought it would only be fair to discuss a story of his which seems much more successful to me, "Only Partly Here", from the March 2003 issue of Asimov's.

What impresses me about "Only Partly Here" is how well it avoids various pitfalls which a less talented or experienced writer than Shepard would probably have fallen into. As with any story by Shepard (even the ones which don't thrill me), it's vividly written. It tells the story of Bobby, who works in the rubble of New York's Ground Zero, sifting the debris of September 11. Bobby and some of his colleagues relax each night after work at a bar where Bobby soon becomes intrigued by a woman who is also there each night. The story is of their effect on each other.

"Only Partly Here" works so well because it is not forced, not sentimental, not polemical -- not anything other than a description of two people trying to find their ways in a world without bearings, a world of wounds. Shepard has not tried to impose a conventional plot on the story, which would have been disastrous. His choice of setting and characters are interesting and resonant enough to sustain any story of this length, and while there is progression and change for the characters, there is no need for big events. The big events are in the background, smotheringly powerful. Against such a force, all we need from a piece of short fiction is to see some characters coping with the world around them.

I tend to be wary of anything which uses the events of September 11, 2001 as subject matter, because the dangers are immense: forced emotion, simplified meanings, the crass use of tragedy to sell a story. There have been a couple of good plays using September 11 as a setting (Where Do We Live by Christopher Shinn and The Mercy Seat by Neil LaBute), a poem or two ("When the Towers Fell" by Galway Kinnell), but "Only Partly Here" is the first work of fiction I've read which uses the results of that horrible day to create a real work of art. What makes it work is its modesty, its willingness to be little more than a portrait. The element of the fantastic at the end is not tacked-on, it is handled with subtlety and grace -- here is a writer who has enough confidence in his work that he feels no need to stretch the story beyond what it can bear. That Asimov's accepted a story with so little fantastic content is somewhat surprising, and I expect (though it could be a false assumption) that the fact the story was written by a well-known SF writer helped -- what if an unknown writer had submitted this story? Would it have been rejected with a quick note reading, "Beautifully written -- try the New Yorker."

Would we read "Only Partly Here" differently if it had been published outside of the SF genre? For me, the fact that Shepard sent it to Asimov's makes me read the ending more literally than I would had the tale been published in a non-SF market. Actually, I like the less literal, more ambiguous reading better, one which leaves open the possibility of the supernatural, but also suggests Bobby may be jumping to conclusions.

The quiet elegance and careful, slow accretion of detail in "Only Partly Here" show Shepard's mastery -- few SF writers would, it seems to me, be willing to let a story like this go without mucking it up with plot developments or government conspiracies or alien interventions. Is it wrong of me to think this story owes less to the archives of Asimov's than to the work of writers such as John Cheever or Bernard Malamud, both of whom used fantastic elements to illuminate the inner griefs and struggles of their characters, though of course Shepard is very different writer from either. But it seems to me that when we look at a story which veers (or shuffles) away from the strict limitations of realism, we will see that it does so for one of two main reasons: either to indulge the fantastic elements themselves, or to reflect on the realistic elements. Neither is better or worse, but the choice can have a profound effect on the way a story is told, and Shepard made the right decision with "Only Partly Here" to let the implied supernaturalism of the ending grow directly from a painfully realistic situation, because to have worked backwards and imposed fantastic elements on a setting as fraught with meaning as Ground Zero would have been to compromise the meaning for the sake of a cheap effect (essentially what I thought Shepard did with "A Walk in the Garden"), something innumerable time travel and alternate history stories do.

What stories such as "Only Partly Here" do by avoiding tempting pitfalls of genre and cheap narrative effects is help us reflect on the painful contours of reality. Literature has hardly ever made anyone a better person, but the body of great literature has civilized readers a little bit by helping them cast their thoughts and emotions beyond themselves and what they know. It is to that body of literature which "Only Partly Here" belongs.

21 January 2004

Who Needs Narrative?

Reading around on Ron Silliman's blog (because I tend to agree with half of what Silliman says and find the other half excellent food for thought, and because contemporary poetry fascinates me, being perhaps the most flexible of all current modes of writing), I happened upon a post which uses the new film The House of Sand and Fog for a contemplation of narrative and its usefulness, uses, uselessness. Silliman maintains, as many writers have in some form or another, that film has usurped the novel's hold on narrative the way that novels usurped narrative poetry. If we consider a desire for narrative to be a popular desire (and it certainly seems so to me), then the cinema has proved itself to be the best medium for telling stories which appeal most immediately to that desire. I don't think this means the novel should or will follow the path of oblivion which narrative poetry eventually took, however, because reading a poem and reading a novel are still acts of reading, while watching a movie is a different experience from reading text, a less intimate and generally less interpretive experience -- most films, and narrative films in particular, don't require the engagement of the viewer's imagination the way even a Harlequin Romance requires a reader to create a world in their mind.

However, Silliman says some interesting things (he's an astute man), and while I encourage you to read the entire post, and to read anything you encounter from him, I want to look here at the end of his post:
One reason that genre fiction has survived more effectively than, say, novels that seek to explore literary values is that such genres have other social reasons for being, sci-fi especially, where the minute that narrative & literary value are uncoupled in fiction, fiction struggles for a good reason to survive. Indeed, much of what has been published over the years by the likes of the Fiction Collection or the Dalkey Archive is fiction that is nostalgic for the novel, and which stretches out different aspects -- some better, some worse -- as it seeks in vain to find out its way out of the checkmate that cinema has become for narrative-as-plot.

I like a good story as much as the next bloke, but it seems to me no accident that my favorite novels over the past 50 years -- Gravity’s Rainbow, V, Satanic Verses, Visions of Cody, Naked Lunch, Underworld, Dhalgren, Islands in the Net -- are almost all narratives that "go nowhere," & which would be unrepresentable in film (as, I would argue, David Cronenberg, proved when he "made" Naked Lunch). And the problems with films like House of Sand & Fog is that, the minute they take short cuts because, narratively, they have "somewhere" to get, the social contract with this viewer has been broken.
I may be misinterpreting Silliman here, but the first few sentences I've quoted make me think about some of the reasons I like SF as much, and often more than, mainstream "literary" fiction. It's exactly that you can remove many traditional "literary values", at least as they are conceived of within your average Intro to Lit anthology, and still have something worth your time and thought. SF -- more than any other paraliterature (to steal Delany's term), I'd say -- uses the tool of narrative to construct various sorts of fictions, from pure-narrative adventure stories to the thought experiments of Ursula LeGuin, which mix the structures of anthropological narratives and scientific case studies with those of fables, myths, tall tales, and oral history. Sometimes such stories rely on the success of the narrative, on everything working and being convincing enough to fulfill the social contract with the reader. On the other hand, plenty of SF stories are so full of narrative holes that the narrative is simply there for the moments when the reader isn't paying attention to the stuff that really matters -- usually the ideas which are central to the story. Think of Philip K. Dick's work if you want some examples. These are not writings which are nostalgic for what the novel was in the 19th century, but are, rather, tales which use certain conventions of fiction to explore ideas or create effects in the reader's mind (or both).

I was impressed with Silliman's list of novels which have stuck with him through the years -- my own would be quite different, but look at that last title: I'd never thought of Bruce Sterling's Islands in the Net as "going nowhere", and it's been too long since I read it for me to offer any accurate analysis, but if memory serves me right, that's exactly what it does, and well. And yet I know some die-hard fans of traditional SF who think it's a masterpiece and would never consider it with the nominally more experimental works on the rest of Silliman's list. Why? Perhaps because it uses enough of the tropes of traditional SF to pull most experienced SF readers into its (pardon the unavoidable pun) net. Once you're in, once you've surrendered yourself to the book on its own terms, you are likely to have an open enough mind to let it teach you how best to read it, or else you will impose enough of your own experience of reading ostensibly similar books to fill in what you might otherwise consider gaps.

I think narrative has too much of a pull on readers for there to be many successful (in terms of sales) SF novels which avoid or subsume it completely, but I do believe many SF writers over the years have developed strategies to build their novels and stories around elements other than the traditional narrative arc, and enough SF readers read for reasons other than to find out "what happens next" for such writings to find an audience larger than the one which exists for explicitly experimental fiction.

The question this raises for me, then, is what can "literary fiction" learn from SF? Some people maintain that what it should learn is to remember that people like stories, but I think this is a superficial analysis, one which gives entirely too much weight to the engines of narrative. One of the more important things non-SF literatures can learn from SF, it seems to me, is that many elements of fiction can be compelling, none should be privileged, and as many as possible should be put to use. Give a reader a philosophically and imaginatively rich work, full of precise observation, written carefully and with purpose, and narrative becomes irrelevant, though it's probably good to throw some in just in case...

Perhaps what we can all learn, and should remind ourselves, is: If it can be done better in another medium, it should be done in another medium. Let's not write books which would make good movies, but rather books which would be impossible to adapt faithfully into the language of cinema. If that were the single credo writers stuck to, they'd produce wildly wonderful books and stories. In fact, as Silliman points out, they already have.

20 January 2004

Heinlein Raised from the Dead!

I haven't had much time for any sort of reading, never mind blogging, in the past few days, but I happened to be reading Nicholas Liu's blog and came upon a link to R. Robot, which has a fun little automatic blogcreator where you can type in a name and get a blog entry. For reasons unknown to me, I typed in "Robert Heinlein", and this was the entry:
Robert Heinlein: low again

Robert Heinlein and his distasteful Bush-haters are at it again. 'You know, Saddam hadn't actually invaded anything for a while,' he said on Nightline. If so, then why has President Bush's call for leadership been so successful? On Good Morning America, Robert Heinlein engaged in clearly depraved treachery that most Americans found shocking. 'You know, Iraqis haven't really gotten along with Islamic fundamentalists ever since hundreds of thousands got killed fighting them in the 1980s,' were the words. Well, duh. At some point, when you look around and realize that your co-workers are hollow and spiteful, you have to break rank and become a Republican, if only for the sake of a pro-war reform and good hygiene, morally speaking.

'You know, Iraqis haven't really gotten along with Islamic fundamentalists ever since hundreds of thousands got killed fighting them in the 1980s,' says Robert Heinlein. For shame! Are there limits to this duplicity?

Why won't liberals condemn the permissive opportunism of Robert Heinlein? The most shockingly ad-hominem of the deceivers, Albert Gore, jr, mischaracterizes Jeb Bush again. 'We might want to stick to getting the terrorism under control,' he said in an interview with Seymour Hersh. Well, duh.

We must build pro-war dreams.

18 January 2004

SF Writers and the Bush Plan

Wired has an article titled "Sci-Fi Scribes Like Mars Plan", which looks at how a handful of gung-ho SF writers feel about Bush's recent proclamation that the U.S. will now conquer Mars and the Moon (commentary on which I will leave to Dennis Kucinich, who said, "I have a theory why he wants to go to Mars: to find the weapons of mass destruction.")

I suppose if I were a reporter with some time on my hands, I, too, would be calling up SF writers, hoping for some pleasant words about spending billions and billions of dollars on space missions. Ben Bova, Greg Bear, John M. Ford, and Ken MacLeod don't disappoint, either. Examine national priorities? No no no -- we've got to get to Mars and the Moon! To me, they sound like Buck Rogers fans blinded by their own dreams, but that may just be a result of how the article was written.

On NPR the other day, I heard a report where a bunch of students were interviewed about Mr. Bush's plans for space, and their responses were interesting, most revolving around the idea of, "Well, we've screwed up the Earth a lot, so we need to get another planet in case we go extinct." Yes, boys and girls, that's a wonderful idea -- instead of cleaning up the air and water on Earth, instead of eliminating nuclear weapons, instead of funding education or health care, let's get us another planet so in case we all choke to death or drink poisoned water or blow ourselves into radioactive smithereens or die from some pandemic or another, we'll at least be able to start over, because, goshdarnit, we deserve it.

It might be interesting to survey a larger group of SF writers -- let's get opinions from Nalo Hopkinson, Jeffrey Ford, China Mieville, Ursula LeGuin, Tom Disch, Samuel Delany, Barry Malzberg -- many of whom have written about spaceships and worlds beyond Earth, but who might have a more nuanced view of things...

Cambell Award-eligible Authors

Since my last post was frightfully long, I went in search of something I could write a short post about, and a link from Tim Pratt provided just the thing: a magnificent website of links to authors eligible for this year's Cambell award for best new writer.

All I can say is, I'm glad I don't have to vote for it, because I couldn't possibly choose one writer from such a rich and excellent list. (Though Tim himself, having recently accepted a poem of mine for an upcoming issue of Star*Line does have my undying love and loyalty...) If you're looking for great reading from great new writers, this website is an excellent place to start.

17 January 2004

The Myth of Characterization

SF is often derided by critics as being thin on characterization (which is not quite the same thing as saying it lacks compelling characters -- where would all those fantasy trilogies be without at least a couple such characters, and most of us can name characters from SF stories and novels who have held our imagination for some time). Writers have addressed the issue of characterization at various times, some of them, like Isaac Asimov, saying characterization doesn't need to be the central element of SF stories, while others, such as various people who got labelled as "humanists" in the '80s, have stood up for strong characterization in SF and have exhorted their fellow writers to do better.

I used to agree completely with the characterization-espousers. I thought SF writers needed to work harder to create characters the way mainstream writers do, because often what I most enjoyed in mainstream writing, I thought, was the depth of character, the sense of living along with someone in a story.

However, I think I was wrong. Or, rather, I think I was looking in the wrong direction, and I discovered this when I had trouble defining what it is that differentiated good characterization from bad -- it almost always seemed to have to do with something other than psychology, which is the fundamental engine of the nebulous entity most readers define as characterization of depth and weight.

First, let's think about characterization in mainstream, academically-endorsed literary fiction. Let me go out on a limb and make a wild generalization: the best mainstream writers may create vivid characterizations within their work, but what makes their work great rather than mediocre is seldom the psychology, and what usually makes competent work mediocre is an overattention to psychology.

I've dug myself a pit here from which it may be difficult to climb out, but as evidence I offer a few almost-random names of writers I consider to have worked or be working at the highest level of the art: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Anton Chekhov, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Ralph Ellison, Donald Barthelme, Alice Munro. (Except for Chekhov, writers whose native language was English, because I want the option here of looking at their exact words.) A sampling, not a representative list of any sort, but it will do.

Many of these writers are acclaimed for their characterization, or at least for characters who have been fascinating and compelling for many readers. Barthelme would be the only clear exception, which is one reason I included him.

What is the nature of the supposedly vivid characterizations, though? With many of those writers, if not all of them, removing the characters from their environment (both physical and social) would leave us with very little to keep us reading. Yes, some of those writers specialized in complex psychological characterization at times, but in every case which comes immediately to my mind, that characterization was either a result of the environment and situation of the story or was directly supported by the writer's flair with language and form.

What SF writers get criticized for when they are criticized for lacking complex characterization is not necessarily "characterization" as a broad term, but rather they are being scolded for not developing enough psychological background details for their characters. Often, their characters are said to be stereotypes -- the strong and stoic starship captain, the intrepid scientist, the muscle-bound swordsman with a heart of gold, etc.

Plenty of great books and, even more so, stories have had characters who were in some way or another stereotypes, though seldom as broad as the ones I described. Hawthorne's work is full of characters who could be judged as stereotypes, as was Flannery O'Connor's. Even Chekhov's. Chekhov is cited often as the epitome of the writer of realistic short stories, but his work, when looked at closely, is only barely that. Even in a long story such as "My Life", he builds his characters, including the protagonist, from a foundation of stereotypes, though we may notice it less today than did readers during Chekhov's era (indeed, much of 19th century Russian literature could be said to be a dialogue with the stereotype of the "dissipated" hero, and "My Life" is an entry in this dialogue). What makes the work interesting and even timeless is the author's attention to a wide variety of details, and the language with which those details are conveyed to the reader.

What we tend to have in the best SF stories are vivid settings, intriguing and even exciting situations, and characters who are the bridge allowing action to develop in those settings and situations. This is not fundamentally different from what characters do in mainstream narratives which claim a certain degree of realism and verisimilitude.

What gets forgotten both by SF fans and by people who denigrate SF in favor of officially literary fiction is that both are operating on a basic grounding of realism, a platform which states that the reader should be brought into the story, made to identify with or feel for the characters, and care about the action. In this way, SF and traditional mainstream fiction share many techniques and values, though SF generally has to work harder at it because the reader needs not only to identify with and believe in the characters, but in an entire imaginary world.

The writers I've listed above, and most of the writers I find most interesting throughout the history of writing, whether SF or not, have not clung to the above ideas as a be-all and end-all, but rather as a starting point. Great writers pay attention to everything that matters within their work, and often, whether consciously or unconsciously, this brings them back to having only one central value: language.

Language is the writer's raw material, and a writer must use it the way a potter uses clay. Shaping the language and working with it is what produces great art. The patterns of imagery and event all originate with words. No other value is absolute.

Scooting myself out onto a shaky limb once again, here's another proposition: Writing which fails, or which is merely mediocre, is so not because of a lack of psychological detail, which any story can live without, but because of a lack of attention to language and how it is structured.

Words create sentences which create (usually) paragraphs, and how those words are chosen and then arranged, how sentences are constructed and then positioned into paragraphs, and the relationship paragraphs have to each other -- this is what determines the success of a story, because all other values are contained within the words, sentences, and paragraphs.

It may be that this is an incredibly stupid observation (though it is one which Gertrude Stein might have supported, having said, "Sentences are not emotional but paragraphs are.") But I find it much more helpful to use this potentially stupid observation as a lens through which to evaluate how writing works, because it moves away from abstract concepts posing as eternal verities ("characterization") and lets us look at the most basic material of storytelling.

To state my position more specifically: A writer who employed all of the psychological material of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying would not create characters who were as vivid as Faulkner's, because what allows Faulkner's characters to be vivid is the situation in which they are placed and, perhaps more importantly, the manner with which the reader gains information about the characters -- the diction and structure of the sentences, the placement of the sentences in relation to each other, the length and order of the paragraphs, and the shape of the chapters. The success of Faulkner's form is inextricable from the success of the content. Even with a writer such as Chekhov who was not formally innovative in the way Faulkner was seems to me to succeed because of the same considerations -- indeed, read any of his stories in multiple translations, and you will see how important syntax and diction are to the power of the tales, even when the overall structure is maintained. (Perhaps, then, we should say that we read translators as much as we read the writers they translate.)

Alice Munro's best work seems more vivid and compelling than that of so many of her contemporaries because of the way she employs English -- the words she chooses and the way she arranges them. Flannery O'Connor could easily be convicted of creating thin characters, except that the language those characters are created with is (in her best work) vivid and precise. Donald Barthelme wrote entire stories without anything resembling good characterization, and his stories are effective and brilliant because of the words, the sentences, and the way those words and sentences convey information.

I don't think I'm going to banish the word "characterization" from my vocabulary as either a reader or a writer, because at times it has its uses, but I am going to remind myself to look more closely at the language which allows that characterization its illusions.

15 January 2004

Are You a Sexist Reader?

Jessa at Bookslut says:
The folks at Readerville are discussing the "news" that New York Times Book Review is sexist. The discussion has gotten pretty heated, and they've gone so far as to do a breakdown of how many men v. how many women are published by various publishers. The results are pretty surprising.

It's difficult for me to formulate a response as my own reading habits are pretty damn sexist, too. In fact, just a woman's name on the spine means I'm more likely to pass it up. My own inherent sexism, I suppose. (Although nothing in the world makes me pass up a book faster than a woman protagonist written by a man.)
The discussion continues, with screenloads of commentary, here.

I'm wary of entering the discussion at all, because much of me thinks it's ... well, balderdash would be a good word for it.

And yet...

When I was in high school, I sent a letter (remember those?) to a friend who was finishing her doctorate, naming my favorite writers. She asked, "Where are the women?" I was stunned. It had never occurred to me before. I mostly read men.

I felt guilty. I hated my parochialism, my paternalism, my patriarchal values, and all those other p-words I'd only recently learned.

Ever since then, I've been aware of my reading, and have deliberately tried to read more women authors. There are female writers I adore -- Woolf, Carole Maso, Grace Paley, and the majority of women writing SF -- and there are other female writers I respect and read a lot of, though have reservations about much of their work (Joyce Carol Oates).

But. I still mostly read things by men. Most of the writers I keep in my mind as touchstones -- from Shakespeare and Chekhov to Delany -- are men.

There are plenty of ways to read such a situation. We could identify social and cultural factors, we could deconstruct our habits, we could indict marketing directors and editors and art directors and bookstore owners and everyone who has ever been in contact with a man. We could get all reactionary and blame women, or we could write for the National Review and claim it's all because of biology, that women are inherently inferior to men.

But. None of it will truly answer the question or solve the problem. A combination of reasons and explanations might get close. But...

Inevitably, what we read boils down to making choices and distinctions. I could further flagellate myself by noting that the majority of the writers I read are not only men, but white men. Mostly heterosexual men, which should make the least amount of sense, since I'm bisexual (ugh, hate that label). I could create quotas and reading lists for myself (at times, I have), but then I'd be reading because I felt like it was Good For Me, and I'd resent it.

The question for me is less about the gender, race, sexual orientation, political affinity, or any other aspect of a writer than it is about me as a reader, because there are ways to read without being a sexist while at the same time reading mostly works of one biological type of writer over another type.

Is that an excuse? It sounds like an excuse.

Let me say then, more simply, that while my choice of reading may be, ostensibly, sexist and racist and heterosexist, I usually don't fall into the trap of saying things such as "[N]othing in the world makes me pass up a book faster than a woman protagonist written by a man", a sentence I find horrifying. Of course, we're all welcome to our own predilictions, quirks, quibbles, and tendencies ... but to make such a statement immediately causes a reader to move toward the conclusion that the writer thinks it is impossible for a man to write from a woman's perspective, and, for that matter, none should try. (I have no idea if Jessa Crispin thinks this or not, and I may be overly sensitive, but it's how I interpreted what she wrote.)

Not being exactly a woman, I can't say whether there is such a thing as a convincing female protagonist written by a man. There are plenty that have convinced me, but, as we know from my reading habits, I'm a sexist, racist pig.

However, I do know that women have written men quite effectively. The aforementioned Joyce Carol Oates is a perfect example -- read her Wonderland for a vivid example.

I don't support the sort of censorship of imagination which says, "You must write about only what you know and what you are." Russell Banks spoke to this ghettoizing of the imagination as it pertains to ethnicity and nationality in an article for Harper's in which he called for a new kind of "creole literature:
We're fast becoming a Balkanized cluster of small colonies of the separately saved. Already we can see white writers in America getting whiter, as it were, especially among the youngest generation of novelists and story writers, who appear increasingly to live in the literary equivalent of a racially segregated, gated community. Consider, for instance, the works of the most gifted and ambitious of the newest generation of novelists: Michael Cunningham, Rick Moody, and David Foster Wallace. And black writers appear to be getting blacker; even the best of them have shown an increasing tendency to preach to the choir (Toni Morrison's last two novels, Jazz and Paradise, for instance, have higher walls around them than did the more inclusive Beloved and Song of Solomon). Maybe it's payback time. But whatever the reason, most non-white writers--African, Asian-, Latino-, and Native- alike--seem reluctant to tell stories about the rest of us; while most white writers have simply become frightened, as if it were politically incorrect, to tell stories about anyone but themselves.
So where does all this rambling on my part leave us? I don't know about you, but I'm feeling unresolved. Still thinking. Perhaps that's how it should be.

A Writer to Notice: Karina Sumner-Smith

I was thinking of writing something about the first issue of Flytrap, an interesting new zine very much worth some attention, when I decided I might also say some things about the thirteenth issue of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, but I needed to read that issue first. Picking it out of the vast pile of to-be-reads sitting on the floor, I noticed it contained a story by the writer of my favorite story in Flytrap, Karina Sumner-Smith, and so I read it and found it to be lovely, a haunting story, one which seems to be a kind of shadow to her Flytrap story "She is Elizabeth Lynn Rhodea", which is even more haunting, a perfectly-modulated study of loss and longing.

I wanted to know who this writer was, since her bio in both zines said little more than, "You haven't heard of me." Well, now I have, I said.

So I fired up the venerable Google and typed her name in. Found her website. Not too many publications, but a few here and there, including one at Strange Horizons.

I read around a bit and discovered, much to my surprise, that Ms. Sumner-Smith is a college student.

Now, being a high school teacher, I try not to judge people too much by their age, since I've seen plenty of students make their teachers look like children. I've also been writing myself since elementary school, though I haven't really accomplished much, and most of my fiction is ... well, a kind word for it would be "unpublished". (The only thing I'm skilled at is playwrighting, but if you think SF is a ghetto, try being a living playwright...) I'm an associate editor at Merlyn's Pen: The National Magazine of Student Writing, where we get to see and publish remarkable work by people in high school and middle school. Youth doesn't preclude someone from being a talented writer any more than old age supposes it.

Plenty of writers who are currently Big Names first published stories when they were in their late teens. It shouldn't surprise me.

But I was surprised. Not by the fact of publication, but by the quality of the work. These are damn good stories. Sensitive, subtle, carefully written, evocative, affecting. "She is Elizabeth Lynn Rhodea" should be considered for any of the Best of the Year anthologies, including the non-genre ones. Subscribe to Flytrap just so you can read it (and Alan de Niro's poems -- de Niro is another writer whose name deserves to be better known).

Let the trumpets sound. We've got a great writer in our midst, folks, and she's got, I hope, many years of writing ahead of her.

Unjustly Neglected: "Dead Center" by Judith Merril

Every now and then I'm going to point toward a story (or maybe book, film, person...) which seems to have been unjustly neglected, a work which is difficult to get a copy of without haunting the dusty and cat-filled back rooms of used bookstores (my favorite is Avenue Victory Hugo in Boston), a work which should be familiar to all serious readers of SF.

There's no better place to start this series than with Judith Merril's 1953 story "Dead Center", which at this particular moment I happen to think is the most unjustly neglected SF story of all time. (Of course, tomorrow I'll probably think of another, but for now that's how I feel.) It was not always neglected -- indeed, it shares the rare distinction of being one of the few stories ever included in the Best American Short Stories series, though it also shares the distinction of being the only one of those stories not currently available in a book which is in print (for a list of such stories, see Andy Duncan's letter to Locus of July 2001).

"Dead Center" is a remarkable story for its bitter, sad ending, the effective use of multiple points of view, and the cold clarity of the prose. Though it is a tale of the early days of spaceflight, and the first manned mission to the moon (written before such a mission had occurred), it has weathered the years well. The situation has been superceded by history, but the strength of the writing and the emotional impact of the story have not diminished in the fifty years since its first publication.

Merril tends to be best remembered as an anthologist and reviewer, and she deserves to be remembered for those tasks, having been one of the defining voices of SF in the '50s and '60s. Samuel Delany has maintained that it is impossible to understand SF in the '50s and early '60s without reading the commentaries she wrote in her Best SF books, and her work as a reviewer helped a generation of readers and writers better define what it was they were reading and writing (and why). Because these achievements were immense and singular, her own fiction has been more ignored than it deserves to be. NESFA Press is planning a collection of her short fiction, a collection which will, I hope, receive a large audience, because what Merril achieved as a fiction writer is no less important than her achievements as an anthologist and critic.

"Dead Center" is my favorite of her stories (or, at least, of the ones I've read -- they can be hard to find). It doesn't seem to have been reprinted at all in the past twenty or thirty years, so finding a copy can be a challenge. I read it in the second volume of Anthony Boucher's Treasury of Great Science Fiction, which I found somewhere years ago.

One of the many notable elements of the story is its lack of sentimentality, despite having one of its viewpoint characters being a six-year-old boy, Toby. Merril's depiction of Toby is sharp: he is frustrated by the lies adults tell him, and he sees through many of their disguises, and yet at the same time he is not able to comprehend the real situation in the second half of the story. The other two viewpoint characters, Jock and Ruth Kruger, are smart and ambitious -- Ruth designs spaceships and Jock pilots them -- and though most of the story's words are devoted to the plot development, at the end we realize the real story was the one we weren't paying close enough attention to: the relationship between Jock and Ruth, and their relationship with their son. Part of the brilliance of the tale is that Merril makes us, the readers, nearly equal to Jock and Ruth, because we, too, want to know What Happens, we want to see the new technology put to use, we want to go to the moon. We have one advantage over those characters, though, because we know what Toby is thinking and noticing. Even with that knowledge, I expect the vast majority of readers do not predict the ending. It's too unthinkable.

Using multiple viewpoints in a story is something writers are encouraged not to do, and it's especially difficult in SF stories because it makes it difficult to understand the world the writer creates. Merril succeeds because she focuses the story on a world not so different from our own, and she uses the viewpoints to explore specific and well-defined actions within that world. To have written this story in a conventional manner would have been to limit its impact, and the central meaning of the story, I believe, comes from the changing viewpoints and the unspoken areas between them.

Could a story like this even get published today? I expect it would find a market, but I also expect the editor would be said to have been "brave" to publish it. The original editors were indeed brave to publish it, and not just because of the downbeat (virtually nihilistic) ending, but also for the fact that Merril created female characters who are equal to men. Not just equal in a good way, either, which puts her ahead of many ideologues who wrote in the decades after "Dead Center" was published -- Merril's females are human beings, full of complexity, as vulnerable as the men to the many temptations to hubris which life offers.

Actually, I may be imposing my own biases on the story by saying its core tragedy stems from the hubris, and resultant blindness, of its adult characters. A reader who is more inclined to support the space program might read the story different, but I find "Dead Center" particularly interesting to read after the various tragedies of the space program, especially the two space shuttle disasters, and the Bush administration's current push for more money to be spent on space exploration. I suppose SF fans are supposed to think spending billions of dollars to put equipment and people up beyond our atmosphere is a good thing, but I've always wondered what would happen here on Earth if the money, resources, and human ingenuity were put to use solving a few of the challenges we face right here, right now.

Merril's writing is a miracle. I hope that NESFA's upcoming collection will bring her more notice, and perhaps provoke a publisher to begin to collect her nonfiction as well, for she is one of the giants of mid-20th century SF, and we owe it to ourselves to know her better than we do.

13 January 2004

Anthologies in Theory and Fact

The closeted formalist in me loves anthologies -- loves to see how editors arrange a bunch of disparate pieces into a whole, loves to read around in search of resonances and repercussions, loves to discover writers I haven't heard of and unknown works by writers I've long adored. I've never read an anthology cover-to-cover in order, and there are very few anthologies of which I've read every word. I should, perhaps, feel guilty for this, but I don't. Reading around, skipping and skimming, allows the book to remain fresh for me whenever I return to it, and I find myself returning to favorite anthologies far more often than to favorite novels. (There are many novels I want to reread, but few I have, because the next novel and the next and the next are always calling. And I'm a slow reader.)

I've been thinking about anthologies recently because I've just returned to skipping and skimming in three which Thomas M. Disch edited in the 1970s: The Ruins of Earth: An Anthology of Stories of the Near Future, Bad Moon Rising (an anthology of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction about politics of the present and future), and The New Improved Sun: An Anthology of Utopian SF. (Tables of contents can be found here. The books have long been out of print, but are readily available via various websites, including Amazon, to which I've linked above).

I first got these three anthologies a few years ago after reading Norman Rush's novel Mating, one of the most impressive novels I've ever read by a living writer. I had devoured Rush's short story collection Whites and his second novel, Mortals, had not yet been published, and I was famished for more of his work. Through a Google search, I discovered he had stories in two of the anthologies above, and so I sought them out, ordering The New Improved Sun as well, even though it was Rushless, because I've got a soft spot for utopian stories.

I read the Rush stories (enigmatic and atypical, but fascinating) and ignored the rest, because life is always busy and there are always other things to read. Recently, though, when teaching a unit about utopian and dystopian literature to my Advanced Placement class, I went back to The New Improved Sun and found it so odd, so interesting (and so frustrating at times) that I immediately took the other two books off the shelves and spent some time with them.

What impressed me about Disch's editing was that it was idiosyncratic and unpredictable, the hallmarks of a great anthologist. Perhaps I should qualify that statement. For me, there are two types of great anthologists: the ones who create comprehensive and definitive books about certain subjects, books which have a kind of arrogance to them, but an informed arrogance (David Hartwell's The Dark Descent is the apex of such an anthology for me). Then there's the other kind of anthologist, the Disch kind, the weirdo, the iconoclast, the demented hedgehog (to steal Archilochus of Paros's analogy). I suppose I'm more fond of the Disch-type than the Hartwell-type, but such a statement is only useful when a gun is held to your head and a choice is demanded, because really we need both.

Bad Moon Rising is the most bizarre of the three in its contents, which range from essays and articles to poems to short stories. It's a kind of bricolage aspiring to be collage, a mini-Frankenstein monster of interstitiality, the science of plate tectonics applied to the continental drift of genres and imaginations. The anthology as tone poem.

When the book was first released, it may have seemed less odd than it does today, for today it is not only a book, but a historical artifact, unemcumbered as it is by Reagan or Rambo, Ethiopia or AIDS, 9/11 or all the fascists hiding in the Bush. It is of its time, as are all three books, and reading them now throws a membrane of irony over the whole endeavor -- we live now in the ruins of earth, and the bad moon keeps rising, holding at bay whatever new improved sun waits to appear. I think I like the books better now, with all their suggestions and implications, their burden of history yet-to-be, than I would have when they first came out, when they were mere collections of interesting words.

The three anthologies make me wish Disch would get back into the anthology trade. He's been busy in the years since, writing novels and plays and stories and poems, many of them captivating and marvelous, but we don't have an anthologist like him anymore (though the annual
Year's Best Fantasy and Horror
anthologies come close). No, too many of our anthologies are hemmed in by market forces and imaginations dulled or shackled by those forces. It's not a genre problem, either -- few anthologies of any sort that I've seen dare to be anything other than what you expect of them (the Beacon Best series, which seems to have died, came close sometimes, as do the Pushcart Prize anthologies, but they've become predictable in their own way, a hazard of any annual collection).

One of the beauties of the Disch anthologies is their determination to ignore genre boundaries, both boundaries of form and of subject matter. Poetry and fiction and not-quite-anythings comingle, as do works published by writers labeled as SF and others labeled as mainstream. Since Disch, there have been occasional anthologies which did one or the other, but few which did both at once. (It's important to note, though, that he wasn't the first. The later books of Judith Merrill's Best SF series did the same thing, and they remain interesting reads even while hundreds of anthologies published around them have sunk into oblivion. Here's a project for a publisher -- reprint some of Merrill's anthologies. It might teach us a thing or two.)

There are some daring anthologies out there (The Thackery T. Lambshead Guide comes immediately to mind), and, more importantly, daring writers and readers. Therefore, I am hopeful for the future, hopeful that within the next few years we'll get some anthologies which surprise and challenge us, rather than giving us only what we want.

12 January 2004

Book People vs. Movie People (and Food People and people)

A post at the blog 2blowhards.com has gotten a lot of notice, and for good reason -- it's beautifully written, thoughtful, and full of interesting insights and questions. The subject is one I've written about (too much, perhaps) here, and which has been brought up recently at s1ngularity: How and why we read, and what the function of critics is. The great thing about this post is that it actually add some new ideas to an ancient discussion, and the central analogy -- between people who love books and people who love movies -- offers some great ways to think about criticism in general. There's too much good stuff in it for me to feel comfortable taking quotes out of context, so let me just point you in that direction and say it's worth your time and attention.

Genesis by Jim Crace

British writer Jim Crace doesn't often get labelled as an SF writer -- he's "unique" or "idiosyncratic", a "writer's writer". He's been nominated for various awards and won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Being Dead, a brilliant novel which never quite becomes fantasy, but is certainly a kind of gently scientific fiction.

Crace's new novel, Genesis (titled Six in the U.K.), doesn't fit comfortably into the science fiction or fantasy genres, even under liberal definitions, but like most of Crace's other books, the setting is one which can't be pinned down to the "real world", and the writing gives the events a hazy, dreamlike quality. Reviewers often don't know what to do with Crace because of this -- he isn't a realist, clearly, but what is he? The only possible answer -- an obvious one, but true -- is that he is himself.

What always strikes me about Crace is how his lucid, poetic prose serves to heighten the effect of his story, creating mood and atmosphere as much through the rhythms of the sentences as through what the sentences say. Opening to a random page, I find:
This was a night of pregnancies, and not just Freda's pregnancy. The snow is sexier than the sun. The cold encourages us to get to bed and hug the person we love. Our folklore says it's so. As does demography. The snow is consummate. Fine weather brings the birth rate down. So this was only one of many rooms that benefited from fertility that night, and Fredalix was only one of many pairs. None of them as yet was counting on the cost, the cost of lovemaking, the cost that lasts for threescore years and ten. Nobody thought, when all the hugs and kisses had been finished with, to tell themselves, Things never end. They only stretch ahead from here. We have to thank our lucky stars for that.
Like a refugee from the Romantic Era, Crace loves landscape, loves to suggest ideas and emotions through descriptions of architecture and markets, beaches and fields. A word I have often come back to when trying to describe Crace's prose is palpable. (There's a description of a market in my favorite Crace novel, Arcadia, which at times seems more like a sculpture to me than a couple pages of writing.)

Genesis is about sex and love, about marriage and growing into middle age, about power and fame. The main character, Lix, is a famous actor from a small, apparently European country (a police state growing into a sort of democracy, a place where public kisses were illegal once, and then, when legal, became a kind of magic, until the magic was turned into an advertising campaign, a commodity), but he has one particularly interesting attribute: every time he has sex, it produces a child.

Some reviewers have found this basic premise of the book difficult to swallow ("Why doesn't he just use condoms more frequently?"), but I think a careful reading shows what Crace is up to. This is a book about freedom and responsibility, about trust and daring. The first sentence lays it all out: "Every woman he dares to sleep with bears his child." The choice of words is careful -- the rhyme of "dares" and "bears" is clever, indicating how important those two could be, and, indeed, are, for first there is risk and then there is a result which follows from it, a result which hints at carrying, at weight, at a burden. His child. And yet the story shows us over and over that the children are seldom his in any sense except the biologic -- he is often a terrible father, neglectful, distant, selfish.

There's a lot of sex in the novel -- beautifully written, sumptuous sex, even when, as so often happens, it doesn't please the characters, but leaves them feeling hollow and frightened, sometimes of each other -- but the real subject is the path to love. Lix doesn't learn to love until the end of the book, and it's not the all-out, endlessly passionate love of teenage fantasies, but rather the practical, sustainable love of two adults. A difficult, imperfect love. One which belongs to two people and is a part of the world, reflected in so many of its systems and designs.

The book houses endless possibilities, its characters resound in the imagination, but I don't expect it will be either popular or much of a critical success. It's easy enough to read it quickly, but hard to like it if you do so. The glories are in the details, and few of those details will blossom if they are passed over quickly. There is no clear plot to the book, though plenty of stories. There is occasional suspense, but it is often interrupted. The book lives and dies on its language, and if you don't savor the language, you will lose so much of what is below that language. It is not a book which can be understood or appreciated until its rhythms are absorbed, and that may take a few readings (it certainly required me to reread many passages after I had gotten to the last page).

What a gift from an author, though! A book which is worth rereading, which all but requires it, and where the pleasure in reading grows with each return. There are still books of Crace's which I prefer to Genesis, but all of his books have this quality, though this one, it seems to me, is moving in a new direction for Crace, as if he is now more comfortable than ever in his writerly skin, more comfortable than ever to write at a pace and in a style which pleases him.

In many ways, Crace reminds me of M. John Harrison, though it's hard to cite the exact similarities, aside from a concern for language and landscape. It's interesting to know that Crace is working on a new novel, one which, he says, posits a future United States which has run to the end of its technologies and fallen back into a kind of Medieval society. I wonder if he's ever heard of Viriconium...

11 January 2004

Innovative Fiction

Daniel Green has written a tough essay for Context titled "Empty Rhetoric: Innovative Fiction and the American Literary Magazine", which looks at how many mainstream literary journals say they want "fresh", "experimental", "innovative", and "original" work and hardly ever publish anything which fits those adjectives.

This is an interesting essay for SF readers to think about, because it shows some of the rifts within the world of mainstream, academically-accepted fiction. Context is published by the great Center for Book Culture, which includes the wondrous Dalkey Archive Press and the Review of Contemporary Fiction, both of which are devoted to publishing and thinking about innovative, experimental literature, so it's not surprising that Context would publish an article saying the current mainstream is dull and repetitive. What's surprising is how easy it is for the case to be made.

Green's essay is long and full of evidence, and I won't quote it here, because no short quotes give the full flavor of the argument. I had two responses after reading the piece, though.

First, I wondered if any of Green's criticisms could apply to the SF world. Could a similar essay be written which looked at the most frequently praised SF markets, the ones which end up in all the Best of the Year anthologies and on the awards ballots? To do so, we would have to change some definitions and expectations, because there are too many forces at play on those markets which are not forces affecting literary journals. The biggest difference between the two, I suppose, is that SF markets -- even the tiniest, edgiest ones -- tend to be read by everyday readers as well as writers and critics, whereas literary journals tend mostly to be read by writers and academics (though, in my experience, the writers don't really read them, they just skim through them and then note the editor's address so they can submit something).

It would be interesting to at least try to write such an article, and I was tempted to start myself, but I don't have the time to do the proper amount of reading, so, alas, it must wait.

My second thought was that Green gets himself into a bit of a corner by seeming to define innovation as innovation of form. He cites structuralist and post-structuralist literary criticism as a support for this, rejecting the idea of "content" as being capable of containing much innovation. To me, SF proves this wrong -- indeed, so much formal innovation has failed in SF over the past thirty years because it's difficult to contain the highly innovative content of some of the best SF within a form which is also innovative. Where most avant-garde mainstream lit has stuck to traditional content (whether psychologically-based on not -- even a content-phobic writer such as Gertrude Stein still chose titles indicating content which was, for all intents and purposes, what people had been writing about for at least 100 years), SF generally finds itself at its least interesting whenever its content becomes too familiar.

What Green fails to note is that not only are most of the well-respected literary journals dull, but so are most of the ones which truly are devoted to innovation. I subscribed to Fence magazine for a couple of years, and though overall I found it more interesting than many of the other journals I've subscribed to, the quality of work seemed comparable, by which I mean I can usually find a few works of interest in any literary magazine and a majority of works which seem repetitive, empty, pretentious, dull -- regardless of whether the magazine is trying to be innovative or trying to publish yet another Raymond Carver rip-off. Maybe that's me.

Perhaps the real truth lies in something said by Frederic Jameson, one of the better-known literary critics in the world, in a recent issue of the New Left Review (at the beginning of a review of William Gibson's Pattern Recognition):
[T]he representational apparatus of Science Fiction, having gone through innumerable generations of technological development and well-nigh viral mutation since the onset of that movement, is sending back more reliable information about the contemporary world than an exhausted realism (or an exhausted modernism either).
Where does that exhaustion come from? Perhaps from an inability of the form-firsters to reconcile with the content-firsters, and vice versa. While it would certainly be nice to see more formally innovative and language-centered SF, there are properties of speculative fiction which may prevent the best SF from ever suffering such exhaustion. Compare, for instance, Dangerous Visions to any collection of cutting-edge mainstream writing from the same time period -- while much of the former has lost its spark and charm over the years, a surprising amount has not, while every example of the latter which I've tried to read has been a torturous experience. (And I'm a guy who likes really experimental writing!)

None of which is to say that SF is any sort of superior literature to any other. Questions of the "importance" of any sort of writing often lead people to make wildly ridiculous claims which seek to raise their personal tastes to the status of scientific law. What's interesting to look at are trends and fads, and one reason I think Green's essay is valuable is that it points out some of those trends, criticizes a couple of fads, and, most importantly, exhorts writers, editors, and readers to expand their visions of what writing can achieve.

Writers and Theory

Matt Peckham has called for writers -- of all genres, sub-genres, and uber-genres -- to familiarize themselves with literary theory, saying
[W]riters of genre-fiction have not done themselves any great favors by reactively ignoring the tools of the so-called enemy, which most critically include the entire history of theory, or the third stage in a generalized history of intellectual thought that began with ontology, metamorphosed into epistemology, and has most recently (post-Saussure) settled upon linguistics. Let me say that again but more clearly. Genre fiction writers interested in creating a theory of what they do and how they do it are missing the boat by avoiding theory and the entire history of academic thinking around the subject. For a writer to ignore theory is akin to a scientist ignoring Newton, or Gould, or Hawking. My secondary point is thus that until more (for some are already quite well-versed, and the trend is growing) writers stop making excuses to avoid theory, which is not easy stuff whether you're "initiated" or not, it will remain unintegrated, cordoned off, separated by the same sort of elitist ignorance that created the problem of genres in the first place.
While perhaps having more SF writers who are familiar with both modern and classical literary theory writing critical essays would be helpful, the idea that mainstream writers have imbibed theory and therefore written well is absurd and completely unsupported by history. (Trent at s1ngularity offers some thoughts on all this.)

The fact is, most fiction writers, poets, and playwrights have gone out of their way to avoid theory. Finding ones who haven't, and who have achieved success within the academic literary world (that is, their works are included on numerous syllabi), is difficult. Every now and then there's someone like Susan Sontag, but the general agreement is that her nonfiction is vastly superior to her fiction, particularly her early, theory-influenced fiction. William Gass knows some theory, since he's a professor of philosophy, and some of his work may have been influenced by it, but my sense of his writing is that he gets more influence from other writers he admires, such as Rilke, Malcolm Lowry, and John Barth. A few writers on the fringes of the avant-garde have made a lot of theory, but really the only fiction writer I can think of to have achieved some prominence while also deliberately attempting to write with critical theory in mind is Samuel Delany, who receives no mention in Peckham's rant, though he'd be an obvious choice of a writer to hold up as a role model.

Theory can be fascinating and can help us read in different ways, but the fact is, 99% of the writers out there couldn't care less about it. From Aristotle on, theory has been written to show what writings have done, to point out ways of interpreting and evaluating, but it's about as useful to writers as real estate listings are to architects.

What Shall It Be?

Traffic to this site has increased substantially over the last week or so, much to my surprise and (frightened) pleasure. It's made me decide to put a bit more time and attention into the blog, and I'm thinking of where to go from here. I like simplicity, and the Net is filled with plenty of intelligent people doing and saying interesting, intelligent things (and plenty not, of course), so I'd like to try not to be redundant. There is one major limitation: my life is incredibly busy, and therefore I don't think it's realistic for this to be a site which gets daily updates. I'd prefer to write thoughtful posts rather than lots of posts which are created only to keep the content fresh.

I'm thinking of moving the site to my own domain and using Moveable Type to allow it to be more flexible, but I'm debating whether it's worth the time, or whether I should just spend a little bit of time designing the current Blogger site more carefully. Not being much of a techie, moving to MT will require quite a few hours of trial-and-error for me (I used to run a Greymatter-powered blog -- I think it took me about 6 hours to set it up, and by the end I wished I had just stuck with the previous system).

If you've got any thoughts or desires for what you'd like to see here, please let me know in the comments.

10 January 2004

2003 SFWA Nebula Awards Preliminary Ballot

The 2003 SFWA Nebula Awards Preliminary Ballot is out, and it's a bit strange. Cheryl Morgan has some comments about it, and Mark Kelly compares the novel list to Locus's recommended reading list.

The rules for eligibility seem clear, but the works chosen come from both 2003 and 2002, which perplexes me a bit. I'm not very familiar with Nebula ballots or eligibility, so I may be missing something...

But why why why isn't something such as James Patrick Kelly's "Bernardo's House" included? Yes, I'm biased -- I've known Jim for years -- but "Bernardo's House" is, even accounting for bias, one of his best stories, and therefore one of the best stories of the year, if not one of the best stories to be published in an SF magazine in the past ten years.

It's not that the list is bad -- there are a bunch of good stories out there -- it's just that it's weird. And weird in a way general awards shouldn't be: it's not the least bit representative of the past year of SF. If the Nebula is to maintain its distinction as a valuable and valued award, it cannot be so limited and bizarre.

Can anybody help me understand what the Nebula folks are thinking?

08 January 2004

Genre Fiction Don't Get No Respect

I happened to be looking at some old (well, old in Internet time, which means more than 24 hours old) postings on Terry Teachout's weblog, and discovered something he'd written about Stephen King at the National Book Awards ceremony:
[King] said (repeatedly) that he didn't write for money, that genre fiction deserved to be taken seriously, and that the judges of the National Book Awards had an obligation to read the best-selling books that are shaping American popular culture (I'm paraphrasing from memory, but that was the gist of his complaint). 'Bridges can be built between the so-called popular fiction and literary fiction,' he declared, and to that end he supplied us with a long reading list of popular novelists whom he commended to our attention, among them Elmore Leonard and John Grisham. (He also mentioned Patrick O'Brian.)
Teachout follows this up with a later post in which he writes:
But while the noir novelists scarcely deserve to be ranked among America's best and most significant writers, their harsh tales are infinitely more readable than the chokingly tedious output of a thousand American writers of impeccably correct reputation, and I venture to guess that people will still be turning the pages of James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice and Cornell Woolrich's I Married a Dead Man long after the likes of Toni Morrison and Allan Gurganus are remembered only by aging professors of literary theory who wonder why nobody signs up for their classes any more.

Does that put me in Stephen King's camp? I think not. I don't think The Long Goodbye is as good a book as The Great Gatsby, and I believe the difference between the two books is hugely important. But I also don't think it's absurd to compare them, and I probably re-read one as often as the other.

The point is that I accept the existence of hierarchies of quality without feeling oppressed by them. I have plenty of room in my life for F. Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Chandler, for Aaron Copland and Louis Armstrong, for George Balanchine and Fred Astaire, and I love them all without confusing their relative merits, much less jumping to the conclusion that all merits are relative.
[The first paragraph is from a review of The Library of America's Crime Novels : American Noir.]

In response, A.C. Douglas writes:
I would only point out to Mr. Teachout ... that the distinction (or, rather, lack of it) is not between The Long Goodbye and The Great Gatsby; not between Armstrong and Copland; not between Astaire and Balanchine, but between, say, any Stephen King or John Grisham opus and anything by, say, Fitzgerald or Hemingway; between (insert name of punk rock group or C&W opus here) and, say, Copland or Ives; between Riverdance or (insert name of dance number from any current Broadway musical here) and, say, Balanchine or Graham. In short, not the distinction between the popular and the exclusive, but the distinction between trash and art.
(To be fair, Douglas is not writing directly about this subject in his post, but rather is taking exception to various laments about the death of high culture, to which Teachout himself took exception, and Douglas responded.)

I noticed all this for a few reasons. I couldn't care less that Stephen King won a National Book Award. He won the same award (Lifetime Achievement, I believe) that Ray Bradbury and Oprah won before him. The winners in the past have included some good books and some bad books, as awards tend to do. Time will tell what cultural artifacts, if any, matter from our epoch. For now, all we can do is enjoy what we enjoy and, if we're of a didactic bent, try to say why.

Critics, and all well-read people, for that matter, should make distinctions between works, because it can matter. Some writers are difficult and deserve to be championed so that people who might not have the inclination or stamina to stay with them might give them a second chance. If you tell me, "This book is important," I'm much more likely to try to keep reading it than if I just happen to pick it up myself. I doubt I would have read any of Samuel Delany's books if I hadn't seen people say he was a genius. The first couple I read left me cold. I didn't give up, though, and eventually I came to see what all the fuss was about. He is a genius. Some of his writing takes work, but it's work well rewarded. I'd read Delany over 99% of other fiction any day, simply because my brain gets more from the experience.

I've read some of Jim Thompson's book, including The Killer Inside Me and I've read some of Patricia Highsmith's book and stories. Both would be considered "trash" of a certain sort, though both often aimed to be slightly higher than trash. I prefer Highsmith to Thompson, but I wouldn't confuse either with Dostoyevsky. The fact is, the literary world could live without Highsmith or Thompson, but literature would be a vastly emptier domain without Dostoyevsky. Why? He does everything the best mystery writers do, and more. (I would also suggest that William Gaddis is superior to Highsmith. He shares some of Highsmith's concerns -- forgery being one of them -- but his work engulfs all of reality, rather than simply reflecting it. His books are considerably harder to read, even for particularly erudite readers, but they're also infinitely more rewarding.)

It's the more that matters. Delany seems to me to be one of the great writers of the 20th Century because he, too, does more. More than other SF writers and more than most mainstream writers. And he does it in ways different from any other writer who has ever put words on paper. There are plenty of writers who don't necessarily offer "more" in the sense of creating huge imaginative universes the way Dostoyevsky, Gaddis, and Delany do, but who do things so differently that what they write gives us new ways to look at the act of living -- Carol Emshwiller comes to mind immediately, also M. John Harrison -- and so they seem to me to be in the highest, or near the highest, realms of literature.

What I dislike about Teachout's comments are his assumption that genre is necessarily a limitation. Genre is a marketing category. Yes, it can be a limitation, and most genre writers accept it as such (consciously or unconsciously, I'm not sure), but the only real limitations are talent and vision (or, more accurately, the only limit is how well a writer mixes talent with vision and communicates this synergy to readers). For most of his career, Delany has been labelled a science fiction, fantasy, or pornography writer, and his books still generally get stocked on those shelves in bookstores. To say that his work is therefore somehow "below" the other great American writers, though, is absurd, and can only result from a bias against genre. Such a bias has a corollary among readers who are genre chauvinists, who insist that SF is somehow superior to all other forms of writing, and that it must heed certain formulas (the readers who say Isaac Asimov is a greater writer than either Dostoyevsky or Delany) -- such readers tend to hate Delany because he consciously includes various structuralist and post-structuralist theories within his books. If the books were not successful as fiction, the presence of various philosophies and theories wouldn't matter -- a bad novel is a bad novel, regardless of intent -- but the books are successful as fiction in any way a literate and well-informed reader defines it, and they are also successful as thought experiments, which is where the philosophy and ideas come in. You don't have to agree with them -- plenty of readers loathe Dostoyevsky's theology, for instance -- to admit that they add something valuable to the work.

Ultimately, any sort of differentiation of literatures is going to be elitist, but I don't think that's a bad thing. The elite means the best, and trying to define the best may be quixotic, but it's a valuable quest because of the discussions it arouses, as well as the passions. Strict relativists and egalitarians may find such discussions uncomfortable, but saying "Shakespeare and Danielle Steele both have pleased lots of readers, so therefore they're equal, and really it's all just personal opinion anyway" does nothing to help us become better, more discerning readers, readers who are capable of appreciating the more subtle and complex possibilities of literature. Let's celebrate the greatest accomplishments, even the ones we don't personally find exciting.

05 January 2004

The Ratbastards

"A DIY attitude in publishing, combined with a network of like minded zineish SF and cross-genre publications, small presses, and bigshots sympathetic to progressing the art, can provide a framework of longstanding health in a community of freaks. "
--Alan DeNiro, Ratbastard

Intrigued by Alan DeNiro's manifesto and the Ratbastards website, I ordered their two chapbooks, read one story ("The Blue Egg" by Christopher Barzak), which I thought was beautiful and elegant and poignant and ... well, a damn fine story.

And then the two chapbooks sat on my coffee table for a couple of months.

What was my problem? Fear of good fiction?

Well, in any case, I have since read them both cover-to-cover, and can say that if you want to read great stories by new authors, read these books. You get a heck of a lot more bang for your buck with these two chapbooks than you do with any of the magazines in the SF field (at least with recent issues of the major magazines, whose names I won't mention for fear of bringing shame upon my karma). These are not traditional stories of science fiction or fantasy, though a few of them might be considered traditionalish contemporary-esque fantasy. Don't hold it against them. But if you're looking for something that might feel at home in, say, Analog, then the Ratbastards are the wrong company for you. (They might just cause you to realize how dreadful Analog is -- oh, did I say that? Bad me, bad bad bad....)

Of the two books, the most recent one, Rabid Transit: A Mischief of Rats seems to me to be the stronger, more consistent and cohesive volume. There isn't a weak story in it. As I was preparing to write about the chapbook, this was, roughly, my thought process: "Okay, so I'll say 'Gramercy Park' is the best story, because it tackles the most ground and Haddayr Copley-Woods is a writer of great skill and insight. But I really liked 'Wally's Porn', too, and it made me laugh and almost cry, even though I saw the ending coming from a mile away. It wasn't a bad ending. And the structure and pacing of the story are extremely well done. I must give kudos to Victoria Elizabeth Garcia for writing it. And then, of course, there's Nick Mamatas's 'joanierules.bloggermax.com', which totally surprised me with where it was going -- it's been ages since a story surprised me in its first few pages quite as much as that one did. It's funny and clever, in the best senses of the words, and manages to be moving in the end -- I didn't realize I was as attached to the narrator as I was. Finally, there's 'Braiding' by David Hoffman-Dachelet, the shortest story, which made me glad, because after reaching the ending I had to read it again immediately, since, though there are clues earlier, the last page offers a bit of a twist. A good story, but short and not as resonant as the others, I didn't think. It's nice, though, to have a shorter piece in amongst the others. Did I forget 'The Headline Trick' by Douglas Lain? I loved that story! Anything involving magic and cons of any sort, even ones that work against the space-time continuum, appeals to me, and this one has the added benefit of being written well. It's entertaining, thoughtful, thought-provoking ... and even Ricky Jay would probably like it..."

How could I possibly turn such a mush of thought into a review (and I won't even begin to try to replicate my thinking about the earlier chapbook, which was even more conflicted).

The second chapbook doesn't contain stories which are as overtly experimental as some of the stories in the first chapbook. Does this mean the Ratbastards are getting conservative? Hmmm... And yet I liked the second book even more than the first. Perhaps this means I'm getting conservative....

Let me try this -- without slighting the other stories, because I do think these are extremely strong collections, and the tales balance each other well, I will say here that there are a few stories which no serious reader of SF, or of short fiction of any sort, should miss. They are [imaginary drum roll]:

Particularly Exemplary Short Fiction from the Remarkably Exemplary Ratbastards:

*"The Blue Egg" by Christopher Barzak
*"A Number of Hooves" by Alan DeNiro
*"The Headline Trick" by Douglas Lain
*"Gramercy Park" by Haddayr Copley-Woods
What's the point of such a list? Ugh, there isn't one. I was just trying to be a good critic and be discerning. It's pointless. These are two excellent chapbooks, every story deserves at least one reading (with Alan DeNiro's requiring quite a few ... I'm still not sure I get it, but I so like the sentences and the chutzpah of it that it seems a standout to me), and if any major magazine rejects a story by one of these writers, that magazine's editor deserves to be fired and run out of town on a rail.

Clear enough?

Update: My interview with Alan DeNiro is here.