28 February 2005

More Holly Phillips

Hot on the heels of my Infinity Plus interview with Holly Phillips, Jeff VanderMeer has Holly answer his five evil questions. And Sean Wallace offers an overview of links and quotes from reviews about Holly's marvelous first collection of stories, In the Palace of Repose. (I particularly recommend "The Other Grace", a story about amnesia that is as close to being a perfect story as I've read in a while.)

Brains! Brains!

Jeremy Tolbert pointed out a news report at New Scientist that had me coming up with all sorts of silly scenarios. For instance, consider the following paragraph:
"Gay men adopt male and female strategies. Therefore their brains are a sexual mosaic," explains Qazi Rahman, a psychobiologist who led the study at the University of East London, UK. "It's not simply that lesbians have men's brains and gay men have women's brains."
Jeremy rightly pointed out that the first quote is great, but my own brain really got working with the last, because I immediately imagined the story of a lesbian with a collection of men's brains in her basement.

Then there are the two paragraphs that begin the article:
Gay men employ the same strategies for navigating as women -- using landmarks to find their way around -- a new study suggests.

But they also use the strategies typically used by straight men, such as using compass directions and distances.
Suddenly I imagined a test used in future classrooms in the conservative school districts of certain U.S. states: a teacher studies how her mail students use maps, and determines that little Johnny has been using landmarks. Little Johnny gets sent to the God Room, where he's told that either he starts using the compass, or else God will punish him with death and eternal damnation. If Johnny continues to use landmarks instead of the manly compass, he's killed in a public sacrifice in praise of Leviticus.

A sentence from the penultimate paragraph is pretty good, too:
Like straight men, lesbians tend to be more sparing with words than straight women. Gay men, however, are inclined to speak as much as straight women.
So the next time you meet a loquacious lesbian, tell her she's talking too straight. And quiet gay guys -- whoa, they're the ones you gotta watch, because they're probably not really gay, and they just have sex with men to confuse you.

The last sentence, though, is the best, a classic of its genre:
"It might be that whatever causes sexual orientation and cognitive differences are uncoupled in lesbian development, while in gay men the two things could be tightly coupled," Rahman suggests.

Dept. of Yet More Self-Promotion

Two quick links that are all about me, me, me:

First, a story I wrote something like seven years ago has found a home at Pindeldyboz. A warning: The story dates from a time when I thought I was going to be a writer of deeply sensitive literary stories. I'm pretty much incapable of writing that way anymore, and loathe most of my old efforts at doing so, but this particular story is short enough that I've maintained a certain fondness for it, and I'm glad it has the chance to see the light of day for at least a couple weeks.

Second, at the suggestion of Jeff Ford, I've decided to create a new blog, this one about my experiences in the role of Caliban in an upcoming production of The Tempest. The site doesn't have much content yet, but the first rehearsal is later today, so I expect to have something to post soon. I'm just hoping I don't drown in oodles of narcissism. ("Too late!" you scream.)

27 February 2005

James Sallis at The Boston Globe

I seldom see references to one of the most pleasurable newspaper columns I know: Jim Sallis's "A Reading Life" at The Boston Globe. Sallis is a writer who deserves a lot more notice than he tends to get, a writer who has been published in the littlest of literary magazines at the same time as major science fiction and mystery magazines (and was even, for a little while, an editor of New Worlds). He's published poetry, short stories, novels, essays, and biographies. The joy of his Globe column is how ecumenical it is -- he's written about such writers as Jim Harrison, Blaise Cendrars, Leigh Brackett, and John Sladek.

On Lovecraft:
Like Hammett and Chandler, so much has he become an element of the very air we breathe and the ground upon which we tread that we take his innovations for granted, failing to recognize and to honor them.
On Larry Gonick:
Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it, Santayana said. Those who do know it, those like Larry Gonick, may be similarly doomed, driven to try to make some sense of it all [and to prove its relevance]: the sprawl and endless reiterations, the loopiness, lunacy and cruelty, lacunae and longueurs alike.
On Robert Sheckley:
Has Sheckley's work changed for me over all these years? Absolutely. As an adolescent and young adult I was much taken with the ideas of his work, with its cleverness. Years later that cleverness came to seem to me a burden, a freight that sometimes set the story to groaning on its supports; but at the same time I'd reached a perspective from which I was able to appreciate the surety and subtlety of the writing, to admire the abandon, the absolute freedom, of it. Nowadays I tend to perceive him as our Voltaire.
This week, Sallis writes about rereading and teaching a favorite novel of mine, Camus's The Stranger:
So as I speak of antiheros, of Camus's debt to the language and form of the American detective novel and of this recent translation by Matthew Ward that I'm encountering for the first time, the multiple interpretations offered by my students echo the many faces this novel has had for me over the years, reaffirming what I say again and again: that only the finest writing can suspend and support at once so many ''meanings." There is no string. There's just one complex knot after another. And that (class dismissed) is the art of it.
Sallis's columns have a personal, informal voice, one which allows him to convey a tremendously broad knowledge of fiction's histories and possibilities without sounding pedantic, and each paragraph moves toward the conclusion without feeling either irrelevant or mechanical. He is a master of the final paragraph -- his conclusions wrap up the discussion while also providing somewhere for the reader's mind to wander next.

I am most grateful to Sallis for his mentioning Calder Willingham, a novelist and screenwriter whom I knew at the end of his life, a man who both inspired and frustrated me, and some of whose novels (particularly Rambling Rose and Eternal Fire) don't deserve to be entirely forgotten. Sallis proves himself an insightful reader of Willingham's work:
Like that of O'Hara, whose name deserves to top the list of underrated American writers, Willingham's work clove close to the surface of his time. It's only when he breaks out of the hardcast realist mode -- certain passages in Reach to the Stars, the whole of Eternal Fire [--] that we begin to hear the thrum of something eternal and disturbing come up beneath his words. Otherwise we read his work today much as though peering into rear-view mirrors. Maybe we should have stopped back there for food or gas. The supposed sexiness of Geraldine Bradshaw, with its portrait of a "liberated woman," is little more than a Fifties domestic fantasy; we read it today marveling that it ever got written and published. Yet in each of Calder Willingham's books there are these amazing moments.
(A bit of literary trivia: William Styron once noted that in William Faulkner's study he found a copy of Willingham's Geraldine Bradshaw, a novel thought at the time to border on pornography. Willingham once told me he considered Faulkner "a glorified pulp writer", which was not at all praise -- and is, it seems to me, a term that fits Willingham's novels better than Faulkner's. Eternal Fire reads quite well as a parody of Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor, but this reading infuriated the author himself, who was convinced he had written a novel that could rival the work of Dostoyevsky.)

In his column on George R. Stewart's masterpiece, Earth Abides, James Sallis says, "Art's mission is to make our lives large again, to dredge us out of this terrible dailyness." It's exactly that attitude that makes his "Reading Life" columns such a joy to read, and so valuable -- they show us ways to grow beyond our own daily details, and they do so without hectoring or lecturing, but through enthusiasm backed with knowledge and intelligence.

26 February 2005

Clubbiness, Hypocritical and Otherwise

Gwenda Bond rants well about accusations of "hypocritical clubbiness" amongst bookbloggers. I was ignoring the entire scuffle, but then with Gwenda's post I began to think I should perhaps state a couple things openly and clearly here. I think Gwenda and others have covered the charges against blogs in particular just fine, but I did want to say a few words about book reviewing within small communities.

When I began this weblog, I intended to write entirely about science fiction and fantasy. At the time, I had met two SF writers in my entire life, and was in semi-regular contact with only one of them. All of that has changed in the past eighteen months -- while I no longer write only about SF, I do it often enough that I now know a lot more SF writers on a first-name basis than before. This could lead to clubbiness. I could write glowing things about mediocre writing by people I know. I have not consciously done this -- I have praised work that I honestly thought at the time I wrote about it deserved the praise, and I have criticized some work when it seemed to me something larger than the book or story itself could be brought into the discussion. On a few occasions, this has caused me to write negative things about the work of people I genuinely like as human beings and respect as artists. (Occasionally with reviewing assignments for other places I've had to write a flat-out negative review of a specific book, because the review was an obligation and I wasn't going to pretend to like a book when I didn't. I do, though, often end up writing a lot of mixed reviews, because for me it's much rarer to find a piece of writing I either purely love or purely hate than it is to find one that I think has both some strengths and some weaknesses.)

Clubbiness exists, and it especially exists within small subcommunities of the literary world. After attending a rather famous writers' conference, I thought the world of mainstream, academically-sanctioned contemporary fiction was stunningly small. Then I went to an SF convention. It reminded me of my college years at NYU, studying playwrighting, when I realized that the world of professional and aspiring playwrights was smaller than the rural town I grew up in. Scary. But exciting, too. It's fun to know talented, intelligent people who share your interests and passions.

What these little worlds need is not for writers to avoid writing about each other's work for fear of clubbiness, but for people to be able to trust that everyone in the clubhouse is at least trying to be honest. Years before anybody had heard the awful word "blog", John Clute said:
Reviewers who will not tell the truth are like cholesterol. They are lumps of fat. They starve the heart. I have myself certainly clogged a few arteries, have sometimes kept my mouth shut out of this "friendship" which is nothing in the end but self-interest. So perhaps it is time to call a halt. Perhaps we should establish a Protocol of Excessive Candour, a convention within the community that excesses of intramural harshness are less damaging than the hypocrisies of stroke therapy, that telling the truth is a way of expressing love: self-love; love of others; love for the genre, which claims to tell the truth about things that count; love for the inhabitants of the planet; love for the future. Because truth is all we've got. And if we don't talk to ourselves, and if we don't use every tool at our command in our time on Earth to tell the truth, nobody else will.

If that means we sometimes make errors, speak cruelly, carve caricature grimaces onto the raw flesh of books, so be it. Some golems are necessary.
Those words were collected in Look at the Evidence, and while they mostly apply to people writing reviews and criticism, some of it is applicable to anybody speaking publicly within a small community.

I have said in the past that I get frustrated with certain SF reviewers because they review piles of material and always like every bit of it. (This is different from a reviewer who specifically reviews only a few books with the intent to point out books that deserve praise. I don't expect Charles de Lint in F&SF to start writing negative reviews for a column called "Books to Look For". That would make it "Books to Look For So You Can Spit On Them".) I don't need to agree with a reviewer, but I do need to trust them, and to know that they are capable of doing what it is reviewers are supposed to do: be discriminating. There are some reviewers I read faithfully simply because I know whatever they praise I will want to avoid and whatever they slam I will want to read immediately.

Of course, judgment can be clouded by familiarity. A book was published last year that I thought was obviously mediocre -- not terrible, certainly, but not phenomenal, either -- and it was praised with more force than just about any book in history deserves. The praise is continuing. In more cynical moments, I think it's because no-one is capable of recognizing true quality when they see it, and so they praise something that is merely okay out of ignorance. But most of the time I think the reason for all the praise of this book is that the people praising it are friends of the author, someone who is, by all accounts, a tremendously nice person, a person who has helped many other writers when they needed it. While I can understand this tendency, it saddens me, because it's dishonest, and I don't think friends should be dishonest to each other, particularly in public.

I'll dump a quote on you now, because I've wanted to link to this article about Dale Peck for a while (and I don't even know the writer, Gary Sernovitz!):
Of course, when we criticize or praise a work, we must discuss the author too, and her morality, and her talent, and her times. Yet a work of literature isn’t an effusion of a writer, it is something made by her, in a hard fight, following aesthetic choices. If we write, and argue, about those choices, we can have a productive, enlivening discussion of how we can continue to try to make a literature that is relevant, absorbing, original--and read. "Art," Henry James wrote, "lives upon discussion, upon experiment, upon curiosity, upon variety of attempt, upon the exchange of views and the comparison of standpoints; and there is a presumption that those times when no one has anything particular to say about it, and has no reason to give for practice or preference, though they may be times of honour, are not times of development--are times, possibly even, a little of dullness."


Here are some things that are not here:

25 February 2005

Vitrified Catastrophes and Ontological Whigmaleery

Mac Wellman's plays inevitably get labeled "difficult" because they are full of oddities of language, and in some of them (such as Terminal Hip) the words are so divorced from their referents that the play can seem to be more tone poem than dramatic action.

Despite his reputation, though, Wellman is a diverse writer. He has written more-or-less straightforward plays such as his adaptation of Dracula, down-and-dirty political satire such as 7 Blowjobs and Sincerity Forever, weird musical entertainments like FNU LNU, and more.

"The Sandalwood Box" is a one-act by Wellman that moves from an almost-coherent storyline to fugue-dream fantasies made of vomitted words. It's haunting and funny, perplexing and beautiful; at the moment I think it's one of the best short plays written by an American (no, there isn't stiff competition -- most American one-acts are atrociously awful crimes against art).

I've been thinking about the play recently because I had some students read it a few days ago as an exercise in a theatre activity. I'd read the play before, but not carefully, and so it hadn't stuck in my mind the way some of Wellman's other work has. Listening to students read it, though, as they struggled through some of the more complex locutions and vocabulary, I found myself entranced and amazed, and I went home and reread the play to see if I could figure out what made it work.

"The Sandalwood Box" was first published in Conjunctions 25: The New American Theater and reprinted in The Best American Short Plays 1995-1996 and then Wellman's collection Cellophane: Plays. The characters are described as follows:
MARSHA GATES: A student and prop-girl at Great Wind Repertory Theater

PROFESSOR CLAUDIA MITCHELL: A Professor of Cataclysm at Great Wind University


CHORUS OF VOICES: including Dr. Gladys Stone; Osvaldo (a sadistic monster); and others from the House of the Unseen
The setting is "In the rain forest of South Brooklyn". In the script, Marsha Gates is separate from voiceovers of Marsha, as the first stage directions state "The actor speaking [Marsha's] voiceover appears in a pool of light down right; she bears a strong resemblance to Dr. Claudia Mitchell."

This is, perhaps, confusing. Until the first line, which is Marsha's voiceover: "My name is Marsha Gates. I lost my voice on the 9th of November, 1993, as a result of an act of the Unseen. If you think you cannot be so stricken, dream on." Then the Chorus takes over some of Marsha's voice, and she herself even speaks occasionally without the help of the voiceover. It's as if her voice was not lost so much as scattered and reappropriated. In the world of this play, people can talk about not being able to talk:
MARSHA GATES: I'm a student at City College. No declared major. I also work part-time in a theater. Great Wind Repertory. The plays are all shit. TV with dirty words.


MARSHA GATES: I can't speak, either.


MARSHA GATES: It's very aggravating.
Soon after this bit of paradoxing, the language of the play becomes more and more unmoored:
PROFESSOR CLAUDIA MITCHELL: Perhaps, however, you mean an act of complete probabilistic caprice. A fly in the Unseen's ointment. An ontological whigmaleery. A whim of the die.
Academic jargon feeds on itself, and then the bus arrives, bearing a bus driver who spews out a remarkable monologue that may not be "about" anything, or may be a foray toward the Unseen ("He would like to discover the truth about what can do no harm only if it is kept, safely under lock and key, in its cage, with no poop in its pizzle, aware of us but dimly, us lost in the crunching despair of our endless opening up before the doings of the Unseen, in all our sick, sad, pathetic innocence.") It's as if Lovecraft has been unleashed to run wild in the halls of academe. Neither Marsha nor the professor is welcome on this bus, though, because neither has a token to pay the fare.

And so the professor invites Marsha back to her "estate" to see her collection of "vitrified catastrophes. Enchanted in a case of glass. Encased in glass, that is." At the estate, the professor shows Marsha her sandalwood box, in which are housed her collection of catastrophes -- a collection she delineates in a long, incantatory monologue that roams from a hotel fire in Seoul in 1971 to Clontarf, Ireland in 1014 A.D. to Kosovo in 1389 and onward. A third of the way through the monologue, Marsha's voiceover interrupts, saying, "But I hardly heard the words she spoke because of a curious feeling that stole into my mind, and I began to wonder, out-loud--" and then Marsha Gates, the unspeaking, picks up where her voiceover left off, asking a long series of questions:
Why is the night better than the day? Why do the young become old, and not the other way around? Why is the world made mostly of clay? [...] Why is one person's disaster not catastrophe for all? And who knows why these things are called unaccounted. Unaccountable. Uncountable. And why, oh why, don't we know who does know the answers to these things? [Pause.] ...because isn't it so that if we possess, and are possessed by a question, the answer must, too, be hidden somewhere, somewhere in the heart of someone, someone real, and not a phantom of the Unseen?
The aural effect of the recitation of disasters laid over the questions from Marsha is tremendous, because the audience can only focus on certain words, certain sounds, so that we end up as confused and discombobulated as the characters. The chorus tries to add some context, saying, "Dream on, they did. Dream on..."

But it's not enough -- unanswerable questions added to catastrophes lead to violence, and Marsha's voiceover says, "I stepped quietly behind her while she was focused on her precious set of vitrified catastrophes ... and picked up a large, blunt object to bludgeon her with, but..." The object is a chair, and Marsha freezes, realizing that the professor wants her to do it "out of a curious ... covetous ... vexatious ... perversity..." Those words become a mantra for the chorus, though it quickly gives way to various overlapping refusals, until the professor laughs and calls for Osvaldo, an act that causes the chorus, then, to become Osvaldo and beat her up, though all the while she and the voiceover (or are they the same?) sing a song in praise of darkness and the Id, a song sung "In the name of disaster./ In the name of catastrophe."

Marsha lies outside the house. Birds cry. "Her man," the voiceover says, "an ape named 'Osvaldo', beat me, and threw me out, but..." And Marsha reveals that she is holding a catastrophe, a catastrophe salvaged from the sandalwood box. The chorus, the professor, and Marsha all seem to merge into a single voice for the last lines -- lines full of horror and a strange, triumphant beauty:
CHORUS: As I lay, bloody and beaten, on the Forest floor amongst dead leaves and whatnot, nearly poisoned by lethal inhalation of spoors, and accidental ingestion of strange moss and fennell...


MARSHA (VO): I opened my hand, and my voice returned. I had stolen one small, nearly perfect catastrophe.

[A slow blackout begins.]

MARSHA GATES: April 4, 1933. The United States dirigible Akron goes down in heavy seas, in a remote spot in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean with a loss of 73 nearly perfect lives.


MARSHA (VO): It was the most perfect jewel of that Sandalwood box.
And so the play ends, with catastrophes encapsulated into perfection, given (and giving) voice.

The play defies summary, despite my best attempts here, because it is not about what happens or even what is said -- it is a tapestry of actions and words, one that requires embodiment in multiple human voices. Reading it now, I can imagine the power that it contains, but it was the stumbling, halting, imperfect reading done by some high school students who'd never seen the script before that made me realize how much depth the play possessed.

In just a few pages, Mac Wellman conveys more than some writers do in three-act juggernauts of oh-so-serious boredom, and he does it through quick, deft movements of language and action. More and more, I find myself attracted to innovative writing that isn't afraid to leave great gaps within itself, that doesn't try to stick the world onto a postage stamp, but rather puts a postage stamp in the middle of the world's unfathomable complexities. There was Leena Krohn's short "sort-of novel" Tainaron, a book that I preferred to various massive novelistic tomes of erudition and insight that I have abandoned, a book that felt like it expanded within my mind rather than a book I had to squeeze into the cluttered space of my cranium. I feel the same way about "The Sandalwood Box" -- I would happily go to see a production of this play, while I tend to dread going to the theatre much anymore, because the time is so often fizzled away with banalities, stock language, clunky character arcs, and desperate attempts to use whizzbangs to take hostage the attentions of an ever-more-distracted audience of tourists seeking 3D movies, the simulacrum dreams of imaginations colonized by Hollywood.

In the world of fractal complication we inhabit, maybe what we most need are not grand gestures and multi-volume compendia, but sharp-edged shocks of concentration and reflection, little gems of language and action that don't try to sum up their own themes or explicate themselves, but rather give a rich glimpse of imagination and possibility, of gaps and fissures, of vitrified catastrophes with just a touch of ontological whigmaleery.

23 February 2005

Notes from a Writer: Adam Fawer

One day I got an email from Adam Fawer, introducing himself as the author of the new novel Improbable. I'd never heard of the book, but Adam contacted me right at the time when I was thinking of locating an author who was trying to use the internet as a publicity tool (I'm curious what sort of techniques are proving effective). Perfect timing.

"Want to do an interview with me?" Adam said. "No," I said. "I mean, I'm sure you're a lovely person, but I just don't have time right now, and I haven't read your book. BUT -- I'd love to have you write about how you're working with your publisher on publicity, and how you're trying to reach an audience." (Well, no, actually, I just made all that dialogue up. Adam asked if I'd want to do an interview or have him write a guest post. I said a guest post would be useful right now, and that something about publicity might be interesting. But the dialogue's better than the banal reality. So pretend you didn't read this bit of bald-faced truthfulness.)

Adam liked the idea, and so what follows is what he's trying to do with Improbable, plus a few tips for other writers. I've asked Adam to check in now and then to keep us posted, because I'm curious to see how some of his plans play out.

And with luck I'll even find time to read Improbable before Adam's next novel is published.

Enough from me. Here's Adam Fawer:

After I hung up the phone with my agent, I thought to myself, "Now what?"

It had been a year and a half since I had written the first word of my novel. From that point on, all I could think about was getting it published. I was hopeful, but I knew it was a long shot. So when my agent called to say that HarperCollins wanted to buy it, I didn't know how to feel. Sure, I was happy but I also felt a little lost.

Suddenly I realized that my dream of becoming a fulltime writer was within reach -- assuming my novel did well (a very big assumption). As I have an MBA and a background in marketing, I thought to myself, "I can make it happen."

The next day, I wrote an email to a writing professor I had at Stanford. In the years since I'd taken her class, she'd become a bestselling author, so I figured she could show me the way. A week later, she answered my note. As I read her response, all the proverbial wind sucked out of my sails:

"The publisher will decide whether your novel will be a success or a failure before it's ever released and you have little to no control over the outcome. Good luck."

As I networked into other people who've been published, I heard basically the same thing over and over. It's all up to the publisher. There's nothing you can do.

However, I refused to believe that I wasn't in charge of my own fate. So I thought to myself, well, there is one thing I can do. I can be nice. Sounds trite, I know, but it's true. The fact is I'm not my agent's only client, my publisher's only author or my publicist's only product. Everyone involved with my book has lots of demands on their time. They're constantly being pulled in different directions, often by very demanding people.

So, I decided to be the one person who didn't demand anything. The person in their professional life that was the easiest to work with. Don't get me wrong: this didn't mean that I didn't ask for anything. It just meant that when I did, I did it in a respectful manner. I still had to push to be included in all the decision-making, but because I was an author they liked, they let me in.

Therefore, I had a say on what the cover looked like, how my publicity pieces read, how my website was designed and how my book signing was executed. The thing you have to remember is that even though writing may be an art, publishing is a business. You have to treat the launch of your book like you're launching a product into an incredibly cluttered and competitive marketplace, because that's exactly what you're doing.

So, after sixteen months in the pipeline, Improbable finally hit the stands a few weeks ago. Here's some of the learning I've gained during the process. (NOTE: As the results aren't in as to whether or not my book is a success or failure, take everything I say with a grain of salt.)

Book Cover

1. My agent told me that if you want your book to appeal to women, it's got to have a colorful cover. "It needs more color! Women love color!" she exploded over the phone when were discussing the first version, which was mostly yellow. After a lot of back and forth, HarperCollins injected some more color into it and I think it's much more eye-catching because of it.

2. Another piece of advice from my agent: the title should be big and bold. Bookstore browsers should be able to read the title from across the room. If they've heard of your book but don't see it, they'll buy something else.


1. Books live and die by publicity, as literature is a tough segment to do traditional marketing. Therefore, make your publicist's job as easy as possible. Right after I signed my contract, I was asked to complete an "Author Questionnaire" about my background and the story behind my story. I took the questionnaire very seriously and spent a lot of time on it. My publicist was floored when she read the detailed responses to all of her questions. It helped get our relationship off on the right foot and she's been fantastic. Remember: your publicist can't tell people your story unless she knows your story, so don't be shy. This is your time to boast.

2. Publicity is all about contacts and consistency. I've been lucky in that HarperCollins assigned me a great publicist with lots of both. However, I've been able to help her out by mining my own network. If you ask around, more often than not (especially if you live in NYC) you'll find that a friend of a friend works at a magazine or a newspaper. If you've got a compelling story and you're not shy about it, odds are you'll be able to get someone to write about you. This is a story I managed to finagle through a friend at The New York Post.

3. Literary blogs are also a great way to market your book. There are tons of great sites out there and for the most part they're run by booklovers who are more than happy to help an author out. But they won't find you, you've got to find them (hint: I emailed Matt, not vice versa). If you're reading this, you're probably a blog fan like me and already know a bunch that would be interested in helping you get some promotion. Email them.

Book Sales

1. This is a tough one. I'd be lying if I said I had the answer (and if there was one, then everyone would do it and it would immediately cease to work). However, in my very limited experience, I find that the personal appeal works. My network was fantastic in this regard as the first week after publication I sold close to 300 books to friends and family. I did this through two signings (one in NYC where I live and another one in my hometown) and a bunch of mass emails asking (okay, begging) old friends and acquaintances to buy my book.

2. Another tactic I've used is what I call two degrees of separation. Whenever one of my friends emails me that she finished my book and enjoyed it, I ask her to email all of her network to help spread the word. Books are primarily sold through word-of-mouth and nothing is more powerful than a personal recommendation.

Well, I guess that's all I've got. Oh wait, almost forgot to toot my own horn: My book is called Improbable. It's a scientific thriller, with a little something for everyone: action, suspense, history and philosophy. Publisher's Weekly and Booklist both liked it and I hope you will, too. Check out my site: www.improbablebook.com, play the flash game and most importantly, buy the book!

22 February 2005

Lost and Found: Rob McCleary

Sometimes writers seem to disappear.

Doug Lain loved the story "Nixon in Space" by Rob McCleary, originally published in the mid-1990s in Crank! and reprinted in The Best of Crank! (you can still get copies of Crank! via Small Beer Press, by the way). Doug loved the story so much that he wrote about it at his LiveJournal site, where, after discussing the story, he wrote,
Looking on google I can't find any link to other Rob McCleary stories or books. But they surely must be out there somewhere. It can't be that McCleary published this and then never wrote, or got published, again. After all, "Nixon in Space" appeared in "The Best of Crank" and inspired me to make a collage tape of Nixon's resignation, his conversation with Kruschev, and Kennedy's speech about the moon. These voices combined with Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite played on my realistic tape machine throughout the late 90s.

If anybody knows the titles to McCleary's novels or where I can get his collected works please let me know.
The internet is a marvelous gadget, and after Doug made this query, lo and behold, not only did some people help discover more info about McCleary, but Rob McCleary himself offered an update on his life since "Nixon in Space".

It makes for sobering, somewhat sad reading:
So now I'm back where I started when Bryan published Nixon In Space: broke, but writing what I want.

I'm working on a kid's book up here, which I really like. I've made some forays into writing adult fiction, but the thought of working for a year on something else just to see it dissapear into a void of disinterest really doesn't do much for me, so I think I'll stick with the kids stuff.
May I be so bold as to suggest that some of our more intrepid editors ask this man for a new story? Please? Else he's just going to spend the rest of his life trying to write Goodnight Moon, I'm Not a Crook. (Which I, for one, would be thrilled to read.)

By the way, Doug makes some great points about fiction when discussing "Nixon in Space":
What seemed to be difficult for some to understand was that the author didn't want you to believe the story he was telling. You weren't supposed to suspend disbelief. The disbelief you felt was supposed to sink into your gut, get into your blood, and make you sick.

The description of the history of the space program wasn't stupid, or altered, but despairing. The narrator was overwhelmed by the last century. Here's the logic of the story.

It was impossible that World War II or the space race could have taken place in a sane and rational universe. Given that both World War II and the space race did actually happen it follows that the universe is neither sane nor rational. If the universe is not sane then rational texts can't describe it.
We need more writers like Rob McCleary, we need places for them to publish, and we need readers who can appreciate what they're up to. (Yes, I know, we need world peace and eternal happiness and general enlightenment, too.)

What other writers, I wonder, have fallen through the cracks?

20 February 2005

Sontag on Science Fiction

Just before her death, Susan Sontag wrote an introduction to a new translation of Halldor Laxness's novel Under the Glacier. The NY Times just published the introduction, and it's fascinating, partly because it's about a writer I'd never heard of (despite his 1955 Nobel Prize), partly because Sontag makes some weird generalizations about science fiction.

I'm a fan of weird generalizations, not because they're correct (what generalization ever is?), but because they're more interesting than banal generalizations, so if you're inclined to generalize, it's nice if you can at least be weird about it. Also, I think Sontag has in mind SF from the 19th century and earlier, since the most of the books and writers she mentions specifically are pre-20th century. Some examples:
  • Science fiction proposes two essential challenges to conventional ideas of time and place. One is that time may be abridged, or become ''unreal.'' The other is that there are special places in the universe where familiar laws that govern identity and morality are violated. In more strenuous forms of science fiction, these are places where good and evil contend. In benign versions of this geographical exceptionalism, these are places where wisdom accumulates.

  • As a species of storytelling, science fiction is a modern variant of the literature of allegorical quest. It often takes the form of a perilous or mysterious journey, recounted by a venturesome but ignorant traveler who braves the obstacles to confront another reality that is charged with revelations. He -- for it is always a he -- stands for humanity as apprenticeship, since women are not thought to be representative of human beings in general but only of women. A woman can represent Women. Only a man can stand for Man or Mankind -- everybody. Of course, a female protagonist can represent The Child -- as in ''Alice in Wonderland'' -- but not The Adult.

  • [B]oth science fiction and philosophical novels need principal characters who are skeptical, recalcitrant, astonished, ready to marvel. The science fiction novel usually begins with the proposal of a journey. The philosophical novel may dispense with the journey -- thinking is a sedentary occupation -- but not with the classical male pair: the master who asks and the servant who is certain, the one who is puzzled and the one who thinks he has the answers.
Sontag makes Under the Glacier sound utterly remarkable and breathtaking, and I look forward to (eventually) reading it. The best part of her essay, though -- the part that truly deserves to be shouted out over the rooftops -- is the beginning, which does not offer an original idea, but rather an idea that deserves endless repetition, and which Sontag finds good words for:
The long prose fiction called the novel, for want of a better name, has yet to shake off the mandate of its own normality as promulgated in the 19th century: to tell a story peopled by characters whose options and destinies are those of ordinary, so-called real life. Narratives that deviate from this artificial norm and tell other kinds of stories, or appear not to tell much of a story at all, draw on traditions that are more venerable than those of the 19th century, but still, to this day, seem innovative or ultraliterary or bizarre. I am thinking of novels that proceed largely through dialogue; novels that are relentlessly jocular (and therefore seem exaggerated) or didactic; novels whose characters spend most of their time musing to themselves or debating with a captive interlocutor about spiritual and intellectual issues; novels that tell of the initiation of an ingenuous young person into mystifying wisdom or revelatory abjection; novels with characters who have supernatural options, like shape-shifting and resurrection; novels that evoke imaginary geography. It seems odd to describe ''Gulliver's Travels'' or ''Candide'' or ''Tristram Shandy'' or ''Jacques the Fatalist and His Master'' or ''Alice in Wonderland'' or Gershenzon and Ivanov's ''Correspondence From Two Corners'' or Kafka's ''The Castle'' or Hesse's ''Steppenwolf'' or Woolf's ''The Waves'' or Olaf Stapledon's ''Odd John'' or Gombrowicz's ''Ferdydurke'' or Calvino's ''Invisible Cities'' or, for that matter, porno narratives, simply as novels. To make the point that these occupy the outlying precincts of the novel's main tradition, special labels are invoked.

Science fiction.
Tale, fable, allegory.
Philosophical novel.
Dream novel.
Visionary novel.
Literature of fantasy.
Wisdom lit.
Sexual turn-on.

Convention dictates that we slot many of the last centuries' perdurable literary achievements into one or another of these categories.
I love how Sontag says it feels odd to describe all those marvelous books "simply as novels", as if the Victorian template of writing about "ordinary, so-called real life" is just too narrow to accomodate a wild imagination, despite the great lengths gone to by Dickens and Trollope and Balzac and Zola (all of whom, of course, have their good pages. And even someone as staunchly mired in social mores as Trollope can serve as inspiration for a novel about dragons.) Convention dictates the categories, and many of the lasting literary achievements of the past are not what we normally think of as novels, but are, in fact, something much more than that.

New Worlds and Old

After reading my review of New Worlds: An Anthology, Michael Moorcock, the editor, sent a note to SF Site in which he expressed his frustration with the review and with my apparent conservatism. Rodger Turner forwarded the note to me, and I asked him if there was a way to publish it either at the site's forums or at the end of the review, along with a short reply by me. Michael Moorcock was open to that, and so you can now read the entire exchange at the SF Site forum.

My response turned out to be longer than the original review, but, as Blaise Pascal once said, I didn't have time to write something short.* I welcomed the chance to clarify some of my thoughts on the book and on New Worlds magazine's legacy, because when I wrote the original review I ended up spending so much time on it that I muddled a lot of my thoughts and wasn't nearly as specific or analytical as I should have been, so I think Moorcock was right to complain. I still think it's a turgid, monotonous book, but I certainly don't think that is the legacy New Worlds left us.

Now, with the response, I may have made everything worse and gone from being muddled to being unintelligible...

*I had remembered the quote "I would have written you a shorter letter, but I didn't have time," as being from Mark Twain, but a quick Google search proved that not to be true. I found an article on "Five Myths about Short Writing" which pointed to this page of misattributed Twain quotes.

19 February 2005

Quote for the Day

Songs, I think, have to be anatomically correct ... I always believe you gotta put a change of clothes in there ... and ... you know that type of thing ... you have to put ahh ... you know, the names of towns and ... it's good to put something to eat in there as well ... and some weather ... you just never know, 'cause folks, you know, you send them out there and the people take those songs, and they do things with them, and they need ... you know it's like a swiss army knife ... I don't know, that's the way I see it ... that's the way they are to me...

--Tom Waits

17 February 2005

Best American Short Stories

I've known for a while that the upcoming Best American Short Stories volume, edited by Michael Chabon, would be a little bit different from past editions, but I didn't dare hope things would turn out quite as well as they have.

I think Gwenda Bond was the first to break the news publicly, and it's big: Kelly Link's story "Stone Animals" (from Conjunctions 43) and Tim Pratt's "Hart & Boot" (from Polyphony 4) will be included in the book.

At the end of last year, in some thoughts on "Stone Animals", I said, "If Kelly Link isn't the best short story writer in the U.S., then she's the equal of whoever is." Earlier in the year, I'd described "Hart & Boot" as "the kind of story you might get if a schizophrenic fabulist decided to recount the plot of a spaghetti western." (That was in a joint review of Polyphony 4 with Dan Green, who had good things to say about the story in passing.)

It's been a while since a writer specifically identified with the science fiction/fantasy label has made it into The Best American Short Stories -- I think Harlan Ellison was the last, in Louise Erdrich's 1993 volume (for more background on the history of SF writers in BASS, see Andy Duncan's letter to Locus from July 2001). Never, to my knowledge, have two such writers appeared together in one edition of the book.

And, needless to say (though I will anyway, because I try not to let necessity dictate my decisions), I can't wait to find out what the other stories in Chabon's volume will be...

Update: Some people are having fun trying to guess what the third story by an SF writer in the book will be, since Jonathan Strahan broke the news by hinting, "Suffice it to say that it's a story I'd picked to reprint from its online publication in a book I'm doing, so I'm very chuffed for the author." Here's another hint, though not a very helpful one: I've also written about it. (And yes, I will note when it has been publicly announced, which I expect will be soon.)

16 February 2005

"This is the best blog post you will read in the next ten seconds!"

Adam Langer has a fun column at The Book Standard about blurbs, blurbing, and being a blurber:
Still, at this moment, I'm struggling with the blurb format, which often seems to be a particularly literate form of Mad Libs:

"This (adjective) and (adjective/noun) cuts to the bone of (evocative phrase). Reminiscent of the works of (mainstream author) and (groovy, less well-known author), this (adjective) work marks (insert writer's name) as a (choose one: [a] writer at the top of his/her game; [b] a bold new voice of his/her generation)."

The cynic in me has always read blurbs with a sensibility borrowed from Mad Magazine: "When they say 'ambitious,' they really mean 'I didn't finish the damn thing.'" My favorite unpublished blurb is one that was written by a very famous Hollywood personality, who I unfortunately can't identify here: "What do you want me to say?" the blurber wrote. "I'll write anything!"
I read this (via Moorishgirl) shortly after receiving an email in which a Certain Author said, "Oh dear. I can't put that blurb on the back of the book: 'I fell into a deep and comforting sleep, except for the *****'" [I have deleted the actual word, because s/he is one of the few writers on Earth whose characters emit, encounter, and examine this particular noun.] (Of course, s/he would not put anything I wrote on the back of a book anyway, because the goal of using someone's name is to sell books, not scare the audience away.)

I've long been fond of the word "blurb", because it's kind of onamatapoeic, the sound of someone laughing and vomiting simultaneously. I even find myself swayed by them now and then, though of course I should know better. I remember picking up a book by a writer I'd met at a conference, looking at all the blurbs, and realizing every one of the blurbers had been a teacher of this writer at some MFA program or another. My congenital naivete began to weaken.

Writers blurb as favors to each other and to their publishers, they blurb because they haven't seen their name in print often enough, they blurb because they want to get more free books, they blurb and blurb and blurb. Over the past couple decades, publishing has been infested with blurbs, so that now a book seems naked if it's only got five or ten. I certainly don't hold it against anybody at this point if they say, "This is the greatest thing I've read since Shakespeare!" on a piece of drek, because I know that blurbs are just another part of the publishing package, something people generally do because it has to be done. Sometimes they're even honest.

Blah blurbs are no fun; the best are the most outrageous. For some examples, there's the famous Puffies, an award given out by Alex Good. Or then there's Nick Tosches, who, in discussing blurbs and Hubert Selby, Jr., admitted, "As a matter of policy, however, I've never actually read the books that I've blurbed." Steve Almond once offered advice to both blurbers and blurbees. Thomas Pynchon may wear a bag over his head on "The Simpsons", but even he blurbs -- and if you'd like to know how to get him to blurb your book, Salon.com can tell you how.)

One of the most interesting facts about blurbs, though, may be the etymology of the word. Occasionally, the word is attributed to Brander Matthews, but the consensus seems to be that it came from Gelett Burgess in 1907, and originally meant not just any praise, but "flamboyant advertisement; an inspired testimonial". That's not the interesting fact, though.

No, the interesting fact is that the man who gave us the word "blurb" is also the man who gave us one of the first poems I ever memorized, and one I continue to torture people with now and then:
I never saw a purple cow;
I never hope to see one;
But I can tell you anyhow,
I'd rather see than be one.

Leena Krohn

I'm putting the finishing touches on an interview I just did with Finnish writer Leena Krohn for SF Site, where there will also be a review I wrote of Krohn's recently-translated novel Tainaron: Mail from Another City, a novel that Jeff VanderMeer put on his Best of 2004 list -- one of six titles along with such well-known books as China Mieville's Iron Council and Philip Roth's The Plot Against America. (Jeff also wrote about it at his blog.)

At first, it was Tainaron's length that sold me on it: 124 pages. I've been quite busy over the past two months, and haven't had nearly as much time to read anything as I like to have, but 124 pages (including illustrations and blank pages) is something I can do in a few days, even when life is at its most hectic. So I did.

And then, immediately, I read the book again. It's that good -- better, in fact, on a second reading than a first. (I'm afraid you'll have to wait till my SF Site review to find out exactly why I think so, though.)

Leena Krohn is an innovative and in some ways challenging writer, but her language is tremendously accessible, her imagery vivid and rich. Tainaron is, I gather, similar to what she calls her other "sort-of novels" in that it is made up of many small, independent pieces that intersect like pieces of a mosaic, forming a whole that is coherent without being entirely linear. I was not surprised, in fact, when she told me she felt influenced by, among other things, Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology.

While not much of Krohn's work has been translated into English, a fact I hope changes soon, there are a few pieces in English on the internet, and I'll list them at the end of this post. She has only had one other book published in English -- two novels published as one, actually, by Carcanet, a British publisher (the book, Doña Quixote and Other Writings, seems most easily available in the U.S. through Barnes & Noble). Having now interviewed her, I'm quite interested to read some of her more recent work, particularly Pereat Mundus and Unelmakuolema ("Dreamdeath"). With luck, those of us who are stuck reading everything in English will eventually have a chance to read much more of Krohn's unique and beautiful writing.

Leena Krohn on the Internet

15 February 2005

Mid-February SF Site

The latest SF Site has been posted. It includes a best books of 2004 list compiled from a poll of SF Site contributors, a Best of 2004 list by Greg L. Johnson, Part 2 of Steven H. Silver's conversation with Susanna Clarke, and lots of reviews, including mine of New Worlds: An Anthology, which was one of the most difficult reviews I've ever written, though I hope it doesn't show too much.

I do wish I'd mentioned Pamela Zoline's story "The Heat Death of the Universe" in the review, because on its own I like a lot of it. It got a bit lost for me within the context of the book, though, because in some ways it's one of those stories that, for me at least, benefits from being surrounded by more traditional, linear stories so that its innovations can stand out as a contrast to the style of writing around them.

Also, I didn't contribute to the best of the year list because I didn't feel that I'd read enough 2004 books to contribute meaningfully. It's quite an interesting list, though, including most of the most-talked-about SF books of the year along with a couple of surprises.

13 February 2005

Greg Beatty Saves the World!

Well, not quite the world. Just a historical collection of 250,000 science fiction fanzines. And not Greg alone, but it wouldn't have happened without him.

Let's work backward. In December, I noted that Boing Boing had pointed to an Ebay auction of Mike Horvat's phenomenal collection of fanzines. I said then, somewhat wistfully, "Somebody should get a library or institution of some sort to bid on these -- this sounds like a unique and valuable collection."

Apparently, Greg Beatty thought the same thing, because, according to a press release from the University of Iowa,
It would never have happened ... if a former student of [Rob] Latham's, Greg Beatty, a UI alumnus who graduated in 2000, had not stumbled across a listing showing the collection for sale while looking at online auction houses one night. Knowing how valuable the collection would be, he immediately emailed Latham.

"Mr. Horvat put his collection up for sale on eBay because the rented building he stored it in had been sold and the new owner was going to demolish the building," Latham said. "The local fire department was going to burn it down to practice fighting fires, so if he couldn't give or sell his collection to someone, it would probably have been burned with the building."

No one had upped Horvat's initial asking bid of only $5,000 when Latham first saw it, but the way that online auctions work, prices tend to skyrocket during the final minutes of bidding, he said.

"As thorough and as valuable as this collection was, we knew there would be a high demand and the final sale price could easily shoot well out of our price range," Latham said.

So Latham persuaded Horvat to remove the collection from eBay and instead let the university take possession of it as a scholarly resource.

"It wasn't too difficult to persuade him because he preferred to keep the collection intact," Latham said. "The fact it would be available to the public and provide an important resource for academic research also appealed to him."
A guide to the collection has already been posted.

(via Library & Information Service News)

12 February 2005

Holly Phillips at Infinity Plus

An interview I did with Holly Phillips has been posted at Infinity Plus, along with Holly's story "A Woman's Bones".

Last month, Prime Books published Holly's first collection, In the Palace of Repose, which is one of the stronger and more coherent single-author collections I've read in a while.

Here's a taste of the interview:
I've always read widely, not just in fantasy, but there is something about the joy fantasists take in purely imaginative work, and something about the way that imagery and metaphor are made literal, concrete, in fantasy and all the speculative genres, that has always fired my own imagination. I think Sean [Stewart] once called it "opening a window on the numinous," which I think is a beautiful phrase.

MC: What about the literalization of metaphor appeals to you? Is it just that that's what seems to most easily ignite your imagination, or is there more to it?

HP: Definitely more to it. What I see happening in my best stories -- because this part of the process is always unconscious -- is that the speculative element, the idea, comes to serve as a metaphor that runs the course of the whole story. "A Woman's Bones" is an example, with the tomb acting as a metaphor for the character's self. To me, the very best SF isn't just about playing around with cool ideas -- although that's part of the delight I take in the genre, as a reader and a writer -- but it's also about making those ideas meaningful. Writing fantasy lets me give a story's theme, its meaning, a central role. I especially love the duality in this: it's meaningful, and it's fun.

MC: What's the difference, do you think, between ideas that are just cool ideas, and ideas that end up being meaningful in a story?

HP: Well, this is one of those things I'm still figuring out, but I suspect that the best ideas are multifaceted in the same way that the best characters are. A complex idea or speculative element plays out in different ways in different situations, affects different characters' lives in different ways, and especially affects the protagonist's life in different ways. There is an enormous potential for conflict and drama if the speculative element has a different effect on her private and public lives, internal and external experiences, friendships, enmities, love affairs....

Mind you, I don't necessarily mean "complex" in the sense that the idea itself has a lot of moving parts. In LeGuin's classic novel The Dispossessed, one of the main speculative elements is that her societies are on two different worlds (actually a world and its moon). A very simple speculative element that works on a literal, practical level by complicating and shaping characters' lives -- LeGuin's protagonist is the first person to travel between the worlds in several generations, and everyone in the novel has a very strong reason for wanting or not wanting him to go, and all the reasons are in conflict, even when the desires are not. But the novel is also about alienation, and who has alienated whom; and not only that, her protagonist is a physicist who has invented a mathematical construct that will allow for instantaneous communication between any two points in the universe, however widely separated in space. Get it? Communication, separation... So the speculative setting also works on a metaphorical or thematic level.

I have issues with SF that uses the speculative element as window dressing, cool F/X like you see on TV. Magical powers can be fun to play around with, in the same way that superpowers are fun in the comics, but to me, magic isn't a substitute for the telephone, or the ray gun. Magic is a force that animates and sometimes rips apart the ordinary world, a force that opens a window on the numinous.

11 February 2005

Arthur Miller (1915-2005)

Two days ago I told some students, "There are, for better or worse, three plays we generally count on educated Americans being familiar with: The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Death of a Salesman. All were first produced within five years of each other, and the author of Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller, is still alive."

Alas, Arthur Miller died last night of congestive heart failure.

Miller and I shared a birthday, and once we even shared an elevator. I was a freshman at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts in the Dramatic Writing Program, where Miller had taught during the previous semester, and I suppose he was coming to pick up mail or something. I was too awed to be in the same elevator with him (and a bunch of other people) to say anything, and I never caught sight of him again.

To be honest, Miller's writing never did much for me, but I certainly respected a lot that he stood for, and I will always respect what he was able to accomplish in the theatre. The reason that Glass Menagerie, Streetcar, and Death of a Salesman have endured so stubbornly through the years has a lot to do with their timing -- they were just the right sort of plays for the actors and directors who had developed their ideas and skills with the Group Theatre to create powerful theatrical events from. They were masterpieces of method acting, and remain today the perfect vehicles for actors and directors interested in psychological interpretations of texts. They are the iconic American plays, the plays that gave writing, acting, and directing their own identity.

They were not, however, kitchen-sink dramas -- all three, and Glass Menagerie and Death of a Salesman in particular, incorporated elements of symbolist and expressionist theatre, a fact that sometimes gets forgotten when Williams and Miller are saluted as masters of realism. What they actually were was masters of using nonrealistic elements within realistic contexts, paving the way for most of the popular and critically successful theatre of the second half of the twentieth century in the U.S.

Of course, it doesn't matter one bit what I or anybody else thinks of Arthur Miller as a writer. The fact is that he was an immensely powerful force within the theatre, and within our culture at large. His death brings to a close an era when the theatre seemed to have something to offer American society itself.

Some Links

Ecstasy, Catalepsy, and Metafiction

Doug Lain's new story ("A Coffee Cup/ Alien Invasion Story") has gotten some criticism at the Strange Horizons forums for being odd and untraditional. Doug has patiently and thoughtfully responded to some of the criticisms at his own site, saying, among other things:
First of all I don't consider this story to be "experimental". By that I mean I don't think it's doing anything new or innovative. I would say instead that the story is metafictional, but people have been writing metafiction for a long time. Maybe thirty or forty years ago a few people could pretend that metafiction was new and innovative, but I don't figure it's particularly daring now.
I recently read Michael Moorcock's retrospective New Worlds anthology, and though only a few of the pieces within it seemed to have survived well the passage of time, I think the book itself is vital and valuable because it shows that not only are certain types of "experiments" not new, but they aren't new to science fiction or fantasy, either. The New Worlds anthology actually made me sad, because I thought that it demonstrated truly experimental writing (writing that is frequently interesting but seldom fully successful, writing that opens up new paths that later writing could follow), but most of the experiments were not followed up on, were not encouraged by the SF field in general, and so a tremendous amount of possibilities were lost. (This is, of course, a broad generalization.)

I don't think most SF readers, or most readers of any sort, are as inherently conservative in their taste as they often make themselves out to be. There will always be people on the fringes, people who say the only good books are ones written by Robert Heinlein, and other people who say no story that has a linear plot can possibly be of value, but I'm betting most of us fall somewhere in between those positions, and that most of us are open to new ideas and techniques if we can find a way to reconcile them with our current knowledge and desires. This is why what Doug is doing is so valuable -- he's taking the time to explain where he's coming from, and showing that his intentions are not at all self-indulgent, but that, rather, he saw no other way to write the story than the one he chose. And that the way he's writing is nothing new. Through these efforts, he's helping to bridge a gap between those of us who are very much interested in the sort of thing he and writers like him are doing, and readers who find such work alienating at first. Perhaps some of those readers will be convinced to give the work a second chance, and will then discover its wonders.

After reading what Doug had to say, I thought of the opening of a film review by James Agee, a review of two movies by Jean Vigo published in 1947 in The Nation and reprinted in Agee on Film. Put Doug Lain's name and the title of the story in place of Vigo's and the names of his films, and this becomes a generally accurate description of what you'll get if you head over to Strange Horizons:
If you regard all experiment as affectation and all that bewilders you as a calculated personal affront, and if you ask of art chiefly that it be easy to take, you are advised not to waste your time seeing Jean Vigo's Zero de Conduit and L'Atalante; go back to sleep, lucky Pierre, between the baker's wife and the well-digger's daughter, if you can squeeze in among the reviewers who have written so contemptuously of Vigo's work. If you regard all experiment as ducky, and all bewilderment as an opportunity to sneer at those who confess their bewilderment, and if you ask of art only that it be outre, I can't silence your shrill hermetic cries, or prevent your rush to the Fifth Avenue Playhouse; I can only hope to God I don't meet you there. If, on the other hand, you are not automatically sent either into ecstasy or catalepsy by the mere mention of avant-gardism, if your eye is already sufficiently open so that you don't fiercely resent an artist who tries to open it somewhat wider, I very much hope that you will see these films. I can't at all guarantee that you will like them, far less that you will enjoy and admire them as much as I do, for they are far too specialized. I can only be reasonably sure that you will find them worth seeing.
I don't think "A Coffee Cup/Alien Invasion Story" is as engrossing or rich as Doug's story from last year, "Music Lessons", but it's certainly worth reading, and if you let yourself feel the connections between the different strands and fragments, the ending can be quite effective.

Metafiction can be annoying for people not accustomed to it, because much of the time we take the techniques of writing for granted, and so a writer who makes a point of highlighting exactly what they are up to can feel like a magician who reveals every trick. Done well, though, metafictional techniques can strengthen, broaden, and enrich a story, allowing both the original pleasures of illusion along with pleasures of thought, analysis, and peculiar estrangement. (For more on the subject, see Dan Green's introduction to American metafiction at his weblog, and John Barth's consideration of the parallels between two of the 20th century's great metafictionists-who-were-more-than-metafictionists, Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino.)

09 February 2005

"A Keeper" Online

Alan DeNiro's excellent story "A Keeper" is now online. I wrote about it last year in a review of Electric Velocipede #6, and it recently appeared on the Locus 2004 Recommended Reading list. Here's the beginning:
Tonight the woman who always calls, calls. This time she asks me how to divide a beggar and an arctangent. What could I have possibly said to her? I think she is a keeper. "Stop trying to mix the humanities and the sciences. And go to bed." I nod to the phone and the phone clicks off. Outside, a noise sounds like thunder, though it could be a stray dog rolling a garbage can for shelter. I turn off my flickering bedside light (brown-outs, again, all over central Brazil) and tell the clock, "wake me at six am," attempting to sleep. I sleep.

An hour later she calls back. "But I can't sleep. I can't stand the fact that all across the Americas windows are opening and closing, opening, and I'm not looking out of them all of them, all at once." I have the vague feeling I ought to know her well; I can't remember a thing about her.


Time to clean out some bookmarks...

08 February 2005

Open Source Shakespeare

I was just offered the role of Caliban in The Tempest for a production that's going up in March, and, instead of making a firm decision, I decided to spend time researching the role. I thought I knew most of the major Shakespeare sites on the web, but there are so many that it's inevitable some get missed, and I had never seen Open Source Shakespeare, which is a great site providing statistics, a concordance, an advanced search, and all the plays, poems, and sonnets.

Of course, plenty of sites offer these things, but I like how easy it is to filter and manipulate information here. For instance, if I did accept the role, it might be useful when learning them to view all of Caliban's lines, and this site offers a range of ways they can be displayed: truncated, complete, or with cue lines. The last is actually really handy for memorization.

Wonderful the stuff you can find out there on the internets!

07 February 2005

Nets the Si'ze of Souls
by Michael Szewczyk

I recently mentioned that I'm going to nominate Michael Szewczyk's poem "Nets the Si'ze of Souls" for a Rhysling Award. I contacted Mr. Szewczyk and got his permission to reprint the poem here for everyone to see. See my previous entry for comments on it.

Nets the Si'ze of Souls
by Michael Szewczyk

there is a music in the roosts, from deadly war
teams of the wildlife colony tubes. Shy is the
Wildlife of conflicting del fuegos
and the orthadox Soul Nets of recent mystery.
in a worship Nations existed in dinosaur
cries of hades. Of the book of Lamps,
i march the del fuego in search of dolphins
and Mighty departures. To hours
and ears of the living in the November
well of books whining friendly with the
days of the ghosts of the sea ledges of
the '70s. a message of Azimuth and try
Not to Make Company while swimming.
Giant, how a Monster in May Stops in April
Easter days. Eighty-Eight Monsters 9 bees
and Over and Over Easter of Michael
Gold of the Sands of tierra del fuego.
* we were carrying the trusting, a dead court,
down a millenium to an abandonnned torpedo
in the sands of australia, coloring and shifted,
as if fooling the ghosts of the tierra.
orthadox 88, stuff changes today. We Send
New Deal Reptiles down Private telegrams of
a Northern Disco. Am imported today
they will return the predecessors golden books
to the wild & Eastern in 1829. We were carrying
the souls of tierra del fuego. A dead Millenium
of Sand in Australia and April as if for
Colouring and Shifting. 88 of the ghosts had
trusting ego'sss. The torpedo dead court feels
abandonnned lifted of orthadox ties. New Deal
Representatives of Northern Disco, A Cult,
Changes today. Today is April, i walk down
a private telegram of golden books
imported by a theory of our predecessors.
Goliath gets up on Latin on boil and
Must feed, Must feed but surrenders alot
to orthadox telegrams from the Swans.
Corpses, history had a slow course of life.
and climbers of the Passive Mystery tour
were Saved for holy fucking deadly Caves.
secretaries Post Packs away everyday.
left in the Evening among the front Story
book service, lost in the hunger of a
had song. the cries were sweet long ago.
a pack of cries of hades friendship. A Sea,
A harbor, above a book about to have someday
someday. access the essence of torpedoes
for Saturday. Edgy past points wearing
down 150 years of adjacent lands.
the 979 predecessor reproducing disaster
and its friday, Young & Public diaries
day. My dinosaur, look at the post of
monsters & Lore. the cries were sweet
in hunger of a hades friendship. A Sea
ago. pack a book about to have
a harbor above essence and torpedoes
to someday someday. Past Points
Wearing down to Saturday. ticking upon
them. try not to make goliath jump up.
Giant, how a monster must feel,
the slow course of life ticking upon them.

copyright 2004 THETEXTBEAK

Strange Horizons

This week's issue of Strange Horizons has been posted, and features the debut of a monthly column I'm writing for them. SH is one of my favorite sites on the internet, and there are few other publishers for whom I would commit myself to a constant deadline (well, unless they offered a living wage. So if you're a publisher and want to offer a significant salary, please don't hesitate to contact me).

Everything else this week looks exciting too, though I haven't had a chance to read any of it. There's a new story by Douglas Lain (always cause for joy), a poem by Deborah P. Kolodji, and an interview with Tim Powers by Lyda Morehouse.

Really, what more could you want from life?

06 February 2005

Suzette Haden Elgin on SF Poetry

Suzette Haden Elgin is one of the pioneers of the term science fiction poetry and a founder of the Science Fiction Poetry Association. She's got a new book coming out in March, The Science Fiction Poetry Handbook and has been writing a bit at her weblog recently about SF poetry and the SFWA's refusal to allow poems as qualifiers for membership (the posts start here and continue here, here, and here, with more, I expect, to come.)

As will probably surprise no-one, I disagree almost completely with Elgin (except about the SFWA), but she's stirring up some great conversations, and that's important. In some ways, actually, I do think she's right -- if SF poetry is going to truly be a genre (rather than a style, mode, or something else), then it should have hard and fast rules, ultimately putting it one step away from being a poetic form. If there are going to be rules, they might as well be Elgin's. The only excuse I can think of for poetic rules, though, is to provide new writers with exercises and all other writers with something to break (for instance, what Ted Berrigan did to sonnets).

01 February 2005

Best Fantasy Story of All Time

I mentioned the Locus Poll & Survey earlier, but I have remained silent about their little addendum to the poll, the survey for the best fantasy story of all time, because I find it an utterly and completely impossible -- nay, absurd task. I mean, I like lists as much as anybody, but this is ridiculous!

Nonetheless, like all such lists, it will provoke some good discussion. For example, there's the fine discussion going on at Jeff VanderMeer's Nightshade Books discussion board. There are lots of good stories mentioned there, and some discussion seems to be brewing.

Myself, I'm staying out of it. If I had anything to add, it would be that Kafka's story "The Metamorphosis" may be my favorite short story of the 20th century. Or maybe "A Hunger Artist". Or "A Country Doctor". Or "Report to an Academy". Or maybe something by Beckett (one of my favorite titles of anything anywhere: "Imagination Dead Imagine"; One of my favorite first sentences: "Ruins true refuge long last towards which so many false time out of mind." I'm really a cheery person. Really, I am.)

I'm so glad Avram Davidson is on the list. And Angela Carter. And--

See why I'm staying out of it? This could go on forever. I can't even whittle it down to one writer, never mind one story!