30 April 2005

Lenz: A Stream of Dreamfulness

I had not heard of Archipelago Books until recently I received their editions of Lenz by Georg Buchner and Three Generations by Yom Sang-seop. Archipelago is devoted to literature in translation, a noble and valuable devotion, because so much writing from throughout the past and present still waits to be brought to the United States.

Three Generations, in a translation from the Korean by Yu Young-nan, will have to wait a while for comment from me, because it's a nearly-500-page family saga, and so I'm going to save it for this summer, when I have time to savor it. (And savor not just the words and story, because Archipelago's books are beautiful artifacts, with high-quality paper and binding, and tasteful design.)

Lenz, though, is a work I have already read in a couple of different translations, and it's short, so I was able to read the entire book in a few days. This edition is not just another translation of Buchner's remarkable and innovative short story, but includes along with the story two manuscripts that Buchner drew on for inspiration.

Buchner's story, here translated admirably by Richard Sieburth, is based on some moments in the life of Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz (1751-1792), a contemporary of Goethe who is best remembered, if he is remembered at all, for two plays, The Tutor and The Soldiers, both of which are minor masterpieces. (The Tutor was adapted by Brecht, which gave it some momentary notice in the middle of the 20th century. Lenz also wrote poetry, essays, and an epistolary poem, but they haven't garnered much attention over the years, at least not in the U.S.) Lenz seems to have suffered from schizophrenia, and his erratic behavior, delusions, and suicide attempts are the primary focus of Buchner's story.

Sieburth calls Lenz "an experiment in speculative biography, part fact, part fabrication". Read on its own, the story seems more like an experiment in point of view, of a writer burying a narrative within the subjective experience of an unhinged mind. The reader must be attentive and imaginative when reading Lenz, because the events of the story, the things outside of Lenz's consciousness, are described mostly as they affect his perception of them. It's a kind of mild stream of consciousness, and yet not -- more a stream of dreamfulness. Here's a passage from the beginning:
He went through the village, lights shone through the windows, as he passed by he saw children at tables, old women, young girls, the faces all calm and quiet, the light seemed to pour forth from them, he felt at ease, he was soon in the parsonage in Waldbach. They were sitting at the table, he went in; curls of blond hair fell around his pale face, his eyes and mouth twitched, his clothes were torn. Oberlin welcomes him, he took him to be a journeyman. "Welcome, whoever you are." --I am a friend of ... and bring you greetings from him. "Your name, if you please?" ...Lenz. "Aha, it's appeared in print, hasn't it? Haven't I read several plays attributed to a gentleman by this name?" Yes, but I beg you not to judge me by that. They continued talking, he searched for words and they came tumbling out, but it was torture; little by little he calmed down, the cozy room and the tranquil faces looming out of the shadows, the bright facce of a child on which all the light seemed to rest, trusting eyes raised in curiosity, and finally the mother sitting quietly back in the shadows, angel-like.
One of the many values of this edition is that it includes the primary document Buchner consulted as a source of his tale, the diary of Johann Friedrich Oberlin, the pastor who cared for Lenz for three weeks in 1778, and so readers can compare what Buchner wrote to his source:
At first glance, given his long curly hair, I took him to be some sort of traveling apprentice; his candid manner however soon revealed that his hair had misled me. --"Welcome, whoever you are." "I am a friend of K...'s and bring you his compliments." -- "Your name, if you please?" -- "Lenz." -- "Aha, it's appeared in print, hasn't it?" (I remembered having read a few plays that had been attributed to a gentleman by this name.) He answered: "Yes; but I beg you not to judge me by them."

We took pleasure in his company; he made sketches of some of the local costumes of the Russians and Livonians for us; we discussed their customs, etc. We put him up in the guest room in the schoolhouse.
I have admired for years the mix of solid realistic details and mystic visions of madness that Buchner balanced in Lenz, a technique that is the literary equivalent of an optical illusion: viewed from one perspective, everything in the story is fantastical; from another, even the most bizarre moments have the heft of realism. Now, though, having had the chance to read Oberlin's words for the first time, I am in awe of Buchner's alchemy, his ability to transform the flat facts of events into something that is not historical fiction so much as it is a kind of life-giving to the dead past. The events and dates and details that are necessary for a textbook study of history are here subsumed in the material that fiction is so well suited for conveying: the intimate, transient details of thought, memory, and sensation.

The Archipelago edition of Lenz also includes some excerpts from Goethe's Poetry and Truth that describe Lenz with less sympathy and more amusement than either Buchner or Oberlin did. Sieburth says, "What emerges from the juxtaposition of these three temporally and generically distinct visions of the figure of Lenz is something like a cubist portrait painted from several perspectives at once -- a multiple exposure of an original model too evasive to be seized by any single image." It's an interesting idea, and an accurate description of the experience of reading this edition from cover to cover.

My one regret about this edition is that it contains nothing by Lenz himself -- his "Remarks on Theatre" would have been appropriate to include, for instance. (As would some of Buchner's letters.) It may have been a good decision, though, to include nothing by the real Lenz, because this book is not so much about the truth of history as it is about the truth of feeling, or, rather, the multiple truths of perception.

For anyone interested in how a genius uses source material for the creation of fiction, this book is invaluable -- it is simply thrilling to be able to compare Oberlin's account to Buchner's story and to measure the boorish practical joker of Goethe's account with the strange and enigmatic creature depicted by the other two writers. The facts of history and biography seem almost petty beside the fierce beauty collected here, and Buchner's experiment in the sympathetic imagining of madness becomes more impressive and complex than it ever has before.

29 April 2005

Spoiled Again!

After I wrote about The Assassination of Richard Nixon recently, BionOc took me to task for revealing major plot points of the movie without providing a spoiler warning. Our discussion is there in the comments on the post, but I wanted to elevate it to its own post, because I think the various viewpoints are important ones to some of what I've been trying to accomplish with The Mumpsimus.

There are lot of reasons to be in favor of spoiler warnings. Particularly for reviewers of mystery novels. There are very few reasons that any rational human being would be against some form of spoiler warning. In fact, I've even used them occasionally myself, as BionOc pointed out.

But in general I dislike spoiler warnings. I have a few reasons for this odd belief, but the important one is that spoiler warnings raise plot above other elements of a narrative. I like plot, and tend even to prefer stories that contain some sort of plot to stories that don't, but it's rarely what I read a book for or watch a movie for, it's seldom what determines whether I am impressed by a work or not, and it's not usually what I remember about a particular story. Therefore, to me, any commentary on a particular work contains spoilers -- spoilers about characters, language, viewpoint, imagery, etc.

None of that, however, would be reason enough to avoid spoiler warnings here at The Mumpsimus, because I realize most people value plot more than I do, and are disappointed when reviewers reveal major plot points. As I've thought about it, I've realized that my quest is even more ridiculous than I already knew it was, because I was hoping that my intentions would be clear from my actions, from the general avoidance of spoiler warnings, but that's silly. Realizing this, I've decided that I will soon put up a link at the top of the site to this post as a "statement on spoiler warnings".

One thing I particularly liked in BionOc's comments was: "I think it's fairly safe to assume that most reviewers in the mainstream press don't share your principled reluctance to privilege plot, especially given that plot is generally all they can fucking talk about." The latter part of that sentence is a particularly important one. The tendency to devote 90% (or more) of a review to describing the plot of the work in question is idiotic. It does a disservice to most writers, particularly the good ones.

So the lack of spoiler warnings here (with occasional exceptions) is a deliberate act, not an oversight, but not intended to cause major angst, either. I am simply trying to show that there is life beyond worrying about the plot all the time, and that plot is neither greater nor less than other important elements of any narrative which get mentioned all the time without warning.

27 April 2005

Manifesto, Manifestas, Manifestat

Jeff VanderMeer is compiling a list of science fiction/fantasy manifestos at his discussion board. It's becoming a nice collection of weird proclamations, a one-stop resource for rants and raves.

The one that was new to me and that I was grateful to find out about (from L. Timmel Duchamp) was Jeanne Gomoll's "An Open Letter to Joanna Russ". Be sure to read it if you haven't -- it's one of those pieces that, regardless of whether you fully agree with it, deserves to be read and thought about.

(The SF world certainly isn't the only one that seems to spawn a new manifesto every week -- for some background on the artistic tendency to get all manifesto on the world, check out Manifesto: A Century of Isms. If you're a political revolutionary looking for a cheap collection of subversive material [and who isn't, really?], I know of nothing better than the Dover Thrift Edition of The Communist Manifesto and Other Revolutionary Writings -- it gives you Marx, Marat, Voltaire, Paine, Proudhon, Kropotkin, Bakunin, Emma Goldman, Gandhi, Mao, Guevara, Havel, and others all in one book for $3.50. If that won't get you storming some barricades, then you're probably dead.)

Manifestos and rants are fun! Everybody should write them -- and often! Down with the system that discourages manifestoing!!!

The Assassination of Richard Nixon

Tonight's shiny happy movie was The Assassination of Richard Nixon, starring Sean Penn, directed by Niels Mueller. Though it sounds from the title like an alternate history story, it is actually a claustrophobic character study of a man who in 1974 tried to hijack a plane and fly it into the White House. He killed a security guard and a co-pilot before being wounded by a police officer and then killing himself.

If you've seen the Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman musical Assassins, you've heard of Sam Byck, but other than that, his name has not been much remembered by history, even to the extent that John Hinckley (who tried to kill Reagan) is remembered. In Assassins, Byck doesn't have a song of his own, but he gets a couple of monologues that are some of the best non-musical writing in any play Sondheim has been involved with. (In the script, Weidman even gets to quote his collaborator in an odd and morbid way: Byck sent audio taped confessions to, among others, Leonard Bernstein, for whom Sondheim wrote the lyrics for West Side Story. Thus, in his monologues, Byck sings a bit of the song "America".) In Assassins Byck is boorish and even funny, but that's not the case here.

I don't usually like biographical movies, not because they're usually inaccurate and selective about details, but because they are usually less interested in the complexities of the character portrayed than in What The Story Stands For. I didn't have much use for Ray, for instance, because the "lessons" the filmmakers wanted us to see the character learn were so numbingly obvious and cliched. That's not the case with The Assassination of Richard Nixon. Mueller and his co-writer Kevin Kennedy changed the spelling of Byck's name to Bicke and changed many of the details of his life story, but they didn't change them to make Byck's life fit into an easy-to-recognize pattern that would appeal to the popcorn eaters in the multiplexes. Despite the fictionalizations, the story feels uncomfortably real, because Bicke is a kind of man who is all too common: out of place in the world, but determined to succeed, and with this determination he only succeeds in making everything worse. Many reviewers have compared Bicke to Willy Loman, but the character type goes back to Raskolnikov, too, and even MacBeth and Oedipus. Sam Bicke isn't any sort of tragic hero, though -- he's a pathetic anti-villain, a creature that is loathsome and ridiculous at the same time. There's a creepy intensity to Sean Penn's performance that removes every shred of human nobility from the character and yet still makes him compelling, a sad and hapless monster. It's a better performance than ones Penn has won awards for.

Both Sams, Byck and Bicke, latched on to vague leftist ideas, an aspect of the character particularly well portrayed in The Assassination of Richard Nixon. It would be easy to make Bicke's desperate attempt to find meaning in his failures into a parody or a cynical morality play, but the film is more complex than that, and one of the most wrenching scenes (in a film composed of wrenching scenes) involves Bicke's visit to the local Black Panther office to offer his support, ideas, and criticisms. Here is a man who has tried to put into practice the mantras of managerial self-help books -- How to Win Friends and Influence People and The Power of Positive Thinking, those Boy Scout manuals for minor capitalists -- and, having failed and been rejected, now decides he's on the side of anybody fighting "the system". All along, though, it's clear that whatever problems there are with the system and whatever fights it deserves, Bicke is latching on to anything outside of himself for blame. When even the Black Panthers can't solve his problems, he lashes out at the enemy who seems to be following him everywhere on the TV screen: Richard Nixon. The film becomes a remarkably subtle study of the tectonic plates of race, class, and personal psychology.

The structure of the scenes is narrowly subjective: we view the world of the movie through Sam's perception. The wonder of film as an art, though, is that a certain distance can be conveyed at the same time as an intense subjectivity -- the events are the ones that Sam is a part of, but we the viewers are separate from them and able to see with more clarity. We don't know what caused his separation and divorce from his wife, and so in the scenes where he tries to rebuild a relationship with her, we don't understand why she is so cold to him and why his children will barely speak to him (just as he apparently doesn't understand), but we can feel how deeply broken the relationship is far more than he is able to. The tension in those scenes becomes nauseating.

Bicke's last hour, that horrible, desperate lashing out at a world that had no use for him, manages to be both clear to explain and impossible to understand. It was premeditated, carefully planned, deliberate, and amazingly stupid. The line between tense sanity and obsessive insanity is no more clear in the movie than in life. The world is filled with people whose lives are like Sam Bicke's, but they don't end up killing anyone or hatching grand schemes to bring justice to the universe through their own apocalypse. One of the many good choices the creators of The Assassination of Richard Nixon made was not to try to slap some easy moral on the story, not to reduce the horror, not to manipulate the audience's feelings. Like so many others, the story of Sam Bicke (and Byck) is simple enough, but far too complex for any formula to explain. The artistic solution in such cases is to portray the character with as much integrity to the portrayal as possible, to allow representation to speak for itself, and to let viewers interpret how they will.

26 April 2005

Three Short Novels from Eastern Europe

Novels that hover between 100 and 200 pages get a friendly first response from me, because I'm not all that fast a reader and most days are pretty busy, so fiction that is longer than a short story but not long enough to take me a week or more to read feels like a gift.

Recently, I read three such books: Black Blossom by Boban Knezevic (published by Prime), Chinese Letter by Svetislav Basara, and Natural Novel by Georgi Gospodinov (both published by Dalkey Archive Press). Knezevic and Basara are both Serbian, Gospodinov is Bulgarian.

I should have read Black Blossom first instead of last of the three, because then I would have approached it on its own terms and not tried to fit it into some stupid stereotype of what I thought Eastern European literature should be. Both Chinese Letter and Natural Novel are playfully metafictional books, novels that are very aware that they are novels, and so when I started reading Black Blossom, which begins with Chapter 9 (working back to 8, then 10, then 7, 11, 6...), I was all ready for something similar. It's not that at all. It wasn't until I went back and started rereading the book after I had finished it, somewhat disappointed, that I realized how much I had injured my reading of it through ridiculous expectations.

In any case, Black Blossom can be interpreted in a variety of ways. At a superficial level, it is simply a somewhat unimaginative example of epic fantasy. If you want epic fantasy, this is not the book to read. There's more to it that is satisfying, though: it can be read, it seems to me, as a political parable, a parable of loss, of mistakes, and of hope. It feels both very old and quite new, with the tendency toward traditional storytelling evoking a strange tension when viewed alongside the quite nontraditional portrayal of the protagonist. The main character is a knight who has been given superhuman strength through a curse, but he is not the most virtuous man, not a man with infallible judgment, not a man who has never lost his temper, been dishonest, or betrayed a friend. When you have superhuman powers, though, a lack of virtue or judgment can be deadly and catastrophic. But the narrator is not a bad or amoral person, exactly, not really an anti-hero -- his intentions are generally good, and he cares deeply about Serbia and its people. The plot races along, but there's a sadness to it, because we as the readers can slow down and think about what's happening, while the unfortunate characters are caught in a whirlwind of events that becomes a cycle where every good intention gets met with some sort of punishment or ill fate. The final chapter, which comes immediately after the first, offers a bit of hope, a sense that the characters have learned something, that they may not fall into the same traps as they, and their ancestors, did before.

Chinese Letter and Natural Novel are very different from Black Blossom, but not so different from each other. Both are great fun to read, both throw bits of philosophy around like candy, both are fragmentary and ambiguous. Natural Novel is a somewhat weightier book because it is more grounded in everyday reality: reduced to its most basic conceit, it is scraps of a book that a character named Georgi Gospodinov has found, and that seems to have been written by a man who was getting divorced, was interested in biology and entomology, and became a homeless beggar. It's exasperating toward the middle, because the narrative almost gets lost amidst all the asides, dreams, lists, and moments of scientific, historical, and intellectual speculation (including a short history of toilets), but just when it all seems ready to collapse into meaninglessness, the book snaps into coherence, and the ending is, for a reader who has paid attention and let all the details accumulate in their mind, devastating. This is a book I'm sure I will reread at least a few times, just to try to figure out how Gospodinov made it all work.

Chinese Letter was Svetislav Basara's first novel (as Natural Novel was Gospodinov's), originally published in Serbia in 1984. Basara has gone on to write quite a few other books, and I'm curious about them, because while Chinese Letter was certainly a book I was glad to read, it felt like the work of a writer I'd call more promising than accomplished. There's clearly a lot of intelligence behind the story, and yet there's also an overly large debt to Kafka and a certain thinness to it all. The central premise is a joy, though: A narrator who thinks his name might be Fritz has been ordered by two men he doesn't know, but is afraid of, to write a manuscript of "about 100 pages", and the book we're reading is the result: pretty much anything that comes to Fritz's attention while he is writing; stray thoughts, ideas, conversations, news, encounters, math problems, schedules, drawings, etc. It's the sort of book that is fun to read but doesn't stick its claws into your memory to the same extent as a book like Natural Novel or Black Blossom.

I see I have neglected to mention the translators, something I usually try to avoid doing, because translators deserve more credit and thanks than they get in this world. Black Blossom was translated by Dragana Rajkov, Chinese Letter by Ana Lucic, and Natural Novel by Zornitsa Hristova.

(By the way, if you're interested in issues of translation, be sure to read this interview with Ammiel Alcalay, which I discovered via Languor Management.)


Having accomplished most of what I wanted to accomplish by hiding in an undisclosed location and ignoring a lot of email, I will now resume regular posting here. ("Didn't even notice you were gone..." somebody shouts from the back of the room.)

I actually had time to watch a couple movies while I was out. I saw Faraway, So Close!, which I'd been meaning to see for years, since it's a sequel to one of my favorite films, Wings of Desire. It's interesting enough, but it's certainly not Wings of Desire (or another Wim Wenders film that I love perhaps even more, Paris, Texas). Also saw Porco Rosso, the only Miyazaki movie available in the U.S. that I hadn't yet seen. (It just came out on DVD this year.) I hadn't been sure if I would like it, since I'd heard it's quite different and less epic than some of Miyazaki's other films, but I ended up enjoying it quite a bit.

Speaking of Miyazaki, I've just begun to read the book his latest movie was based on, Diana Wynne Jones's Howl's Moving Castle, because I've wanted to read something by Jones for a while (after all, Farah Mendelsohn's soon to published a book about her, so Jones must be something pretty special), but I didn't know where to start. It's a charming, witty, and engaging book, and I'm finding myself structuring my days around grabbing an hour here or a half hour there to read another chapter.

Finally, I have a couple of new or semi-new bits of writing up elsewhere: A review at SF Site of Trunk Stories, an essentially annual 'zine that is really worth some attention. In response to the review, editor William Smith had released the entire first issue as a (big) PDF, which is tremendously generous -- if only other print magazines would offer their out-of-print issues for free online, the world would be a perfect place. (Okay, well, part of that last sentence went through the hyperbolic chamber...)

And over at the LitBlog Co-Op, I've put up a new post about books and desert islands.

20 April 2005

Into Seclusion

I'm struggling to finish up a couple of projects and to finish reading for The Fountain Award, so I'm going to force myself not to write here at The Mumpsimus for at least the rest of the week, maybe longer. Once I get some work done, I should be able to post more regularly, rather than the on-again-off-again that it's been while I've been trying (awkwardly) to juggle everything.

19 April 2005

The Fourth Circle at the LitBlog Co-op

I just put up my first post at the LitBlog Co-Op, about the book I would have nominated had I been on the nominating committee this quarter: The Fourth Circle by Zoran Zivkovic. We were trying to decide what sorts of things to post between now and the May 15 announcement of the book we'll be discussing for the first quarter, and somebody suggested that those of us who didn't get to nominate say a few words about books we would have, had we had the opportunity. Sounded like fun. Mark Sarvas made his non-nomination earlier in the week, and we're likely to see a few new posts each day from now on. So if you're looking for diverse recommendations of good recent fiction to read, head over to the Co-Op.

16 April 2005

In the Palace of Repose by Holly Phillips

Though a couple months ago I did an interview with Holly Phillips, I haven't had a chance to write elsewhere about In the Palace of Repose, her first short story collection.

A few things make this book marvelous and rare. First off, it is a collection of stories that are mostly original to it -- only two appeared in magazines before the book was released. Second, it is a varied collection and yet a cohesive one, with stories that explore a variety of subjects in different modes and tones, but with enough overlap that the book seems to come from a single sensibiliity, a single vision of the multiple possibilities of life and imagination. There are stories that are fairly traditional fantasy in the way the background world is imagined (the title story, for instance); stories that are traditional horror tales in the props they use and the sense of impending doom that leaks between the lines ("One of the Hungry Ones"); stories that mix elements of fantasy, horror, and science fiction ("The New Ecology"); and essentially mainstream stories that could only be written by a writer steeped in the imaginative habits of the fantastic genres ("The Other Grace").

Yet the collection holds together remarkably well as a collection because certain themes, images, and ideas weave between the tales, with a statement in one story becoming an echo in another. Again and again, characters are alienated from their surroundings, again and again artists seek ways to unite disparate experiences and people, again and again something mysterious and ethereal lies beyond reach. The stories, then, are collected not because they represent a single way of writing, but, instead, because each demonstrates a different way of reaching out to the world, a different way of trying to make sense of things that are essentially beyond the grasp of a single human mind.

The two stories I find most remarkable are the two that are least obviously fantastic: "The Other Grace" and "Summer Ice". The first is a story of a young amnesiac and her family, a sort of inverted "Metamorphosis" in which the changed person tries to figure out the family. When I first read "The Other Grace" I was filled with terror, because each sentence seemed just right, and yet I was sure Phillips would take an easy, sentimental, unambiguous route to the ending and ruin it all. She does not. It is a perfect story because it is an uncompromising story, a story that accepts its own premises and doesn't give in to our desire for resolution. "Summer Ice" is a near-future science fiction story that at moments reminded me of Kim Stanley Robinson's "Down and Out in the Year 2000" (or, rather, reminded me of my memory of that story, since I haven't read it in a while). It's easy enough not to recognize this as an SF story, because it's set in Canada, and those of us who don't live there might suffer a certain Impulse To Stereotype that makes Canada into a place that feels like the oddly placid world of the story, but the little details suggest a future world where energy is running out. There is a pleasant sentimentality to the story, a sentimentality that undercuts the dark currents beneath the words and seems to me entirely appropriate. The ending is open enough to feel not like a Hallmark card, but rather a cherished moment of life that most people might not think deserves all the emotion it produces, but that, within the sensibility of a particular personality, makes perfect sense, and so the sweetness possesses a melancholy entirely its own.

Both "The Other Grace" and "Summer Ice" could have appeared in a literary journal like Threepenny Review or TriQuarterly or any of innumerable others. But context is important here, and having these two stories collected alongside overtly fantastical tales opens the reader's imagination and allows us to approach these two stories with a sensibility trained to expect surprise and the possibility of the impossible. That makes for a different reading experience than would be had if these stories were collected with other stories similar to them in technique and background. "In the Palace of Repose" is the first story in the book, a story of such imagination that I expected it must be part of a series and not a one-shot use of the setting it describes (but as Holly says in the interview, she didn't think of it this way, and it is just itself in its richly suggestive imagined world), and the second story is "The Other Grace", so if you read the stories in order, you will move from one lyrical tale of expectation and loss and new beginnings to a second, but the first story is set in a vividly fantastic world while the second is set in the world we call real. The progression continues, with stories slipping back and forth across territory that is real, irreal, and surreal. This is a subtly subversive way of reading, the sort of thing that might happen if a mischievous publisher listed the complete works of Steinbeck as "science fiction". The quality of the stories individually varies, and I have yet to hear from any two people who agree on what is the strongest story in the book and what the weakest, but the whole is what impresses me more than any one part -- and some of the parts are pretty darn impressive.

14 April 2005

POD in the Amazon

The news that Amazon.com has bought BookSurge, a print-on-demand publisher, has caused a lot of chatter about what Amazon is up to. Are they trying to take over the world? Are they trying to make all publisher obsolete? Are UFOs involved?

I'm not going to get into the debate, because I'm not particularly informed in one way or another, but I do want to remind everyone about Sean Wallace's article about POD for Locus Online from last year, because Sean has utilized POD to bring us all sorts of marvelous things from Prime Books, where he is Grand Poobah, and Wildside, where he is an editor. (Wildside has been a real leader in using POD to bring out-of-print books, and even magazines, back into print.)

To see how POD affected a real live actual book, see the second part of Jeff VanderMeer's chronicle of the making of the great City of Saints and Madmen, a book that stretched the limits of POD technology and ended up being a triumph of design.

For a view related to the current news about Amazon, see what Dan Wickett has to say over at Conversational Reading.

13 April 2005

"Fictional World": Coming Soon to a TV Near You!

Nick Mamatas has the best response I've yet seen to the frightening-but-somehow-amusing idea of "America's Book Millionaire" (impossible to excerpt, so go read it in full).

It made me think that a good "reality TV" show would not be one along these lines, but rather one that took a bunch of writers of vastly different sensibilities and temperaments and stuck them in a little house together. Call it "Fictional World".

For instance, maybe they could all go live with J.D. Salinger. Wouldn't that be fun? Who would be the contestants? J.D. Salinger, of course, since he's already there. And Stephen King. And Harold Bloom. And Stanley Crouch and Dale Peck for a little lighthearted slapping. Can't have only men, though. Camille Paglia's always fun to hang out with, and I'm sure she'd get along well with all the guys in the house. Maybe add Anne Rice for a fun dynamic, Toni Morrison for a mix of popularity and intellect, and Carole Maso as a wild card.

Need some young upstarts? Well, we could include Heidi Julavits to keep the snark levels low, and Jonathan Safran Foer to be a snark magnet.

If the first season is a hit, I can imagine all sorts of fun later. "Fictional World: Providence" could have various members of the Brown University faculty living with members of the H.P. Lovecraft Society. "Fictional World: New York" could make rural writers like Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder live with the "New York women" recently nominated for the National Book Award. "Fictional World: Oxford" would let M. John Harrison and David Brin live in Tolkien's house.

Oh, the possibilities....

12 April 2005

Dead Poetries

The echoes, implications, silences, odd turns, and discordant harmonies of the following items together seem worth at least a moment of attention, though I may just be tired:
After college, many English majors stop reading contemporary poetry. Why not? They become involved in journalism or scholarship, essay writing or editing, brokerage or social work; they backslide from the undergraduate Church of Poetry. Years later, glancing belatedly at the poetic scene, they tell us that poetry is dead. They left poetry; therefore they blame poetry for leaving them. Really, they lament their own aging. Don't we all? But some of us do not blame the current poets.

--Donald Hall, "Death to the Death of Poetry"

Since the embarrassing disaster of the attempts at quashing Pound & the Beats in the 1950s, the [School of Quietude] has largely employed benign neglect toward the new poetries that have emerged since then -- viz., Joris' Celan. Like all hegemons, a major part of its strategy has been to pretend that it's the unmarked case. Like white males pretending that identity politics doesn't include them. So that today we have "poetry" and we have "language poetry" (or maybe "post-language poetry"). The Pulitzer mostly is reserved for poetry, not that other stuff. The biggest single reason to use a phrase like School of Quietude (or Brahmins or university twits or whatever) is to make it visible.

--Ron Silliman

Supposing that one walks out into the air
On a fresh spring day and has the misfortune
To encounter an article on modern poetry
In New World Writing, or has the misfortune
To see some examples of some of the poetry
Written by the men with their eyes on the myth
And the Missus and the midterms, in the Hudson Review,
Or, if one is abroad, in Botteghe Oscure,
Or indeed in Encounter, what is one to do
With the rest of one's day that lies blasted in ruins
All bluely about one, what is one to do?
Oh surely one cannot complain to the President,
Nor even to the deans of Columbia College,
Nor to T.S. Eliot, nor to Ezra Pound,
And supposing one writes to the Princess Caetani,
"Your poets are awful!" what good would it do?
And supposing one goes to the Hudson Review
With a package of matches and sets fire to the building?
One ends up in prison with trial subscriptions
To the Partisan, Sewanee, and Kenyon Review!

--Kenneth Koch, "Fresh Air"
(available in On the Great Atlantic Rainway)

11 April 2005

From the Bowels of Australian Pimps

Ben Peek just sent me a note to let me know that he's got a bunch of interviews with Australian science fiction and fantasy writers, editors, etc. running this week at his LiveJournal. He's calling it "Pimp Your Shit Week", apparently in an attempt to garner attention from Australia's noted clans of coprophiliacs. He explains in his note: "Basically, for the entire week, people from the Australian scene are doing tiny interviews to pimp what work they've got out. It's a small scene, so I figured a new approach was needed to keep it alive and getting new readers, which it kind of needs." (Apparently, though Harlan Ellison has often told writers "Don't be a whore!" it's okay to be a pimp. Huh. All about power relations, I guess. Or, as Foucault once said, "Language is the first and last structure of madness, and red lightbulbs are just so passe.")

People involved in Ben's interviews so far include Anna Tambour, Jonathan Strahan, Sean Williams and others. And he even asks each of them what their favorite swear word is!

Argosy Anew

I just received a subscription copy of the third issue of Argosy, a creature I thought to be imaginary for a while. There are days when it's fun to be a pessimist, because you can be pleasantly surprised when good things happen, and the survival of Argosy is a good thing, indeed, because it's a truly unique publication, one of the only places on Earth where a wide variety of fictions can coexist comfortably. It's also beautifully designed and fun to flip through because of the high quality of the paper and printing.

Because of various problems with distribution, Argosy is now billing itself more as a quarterly anthology than as a magazine, which means that the ads have gone away and the price has gone up a bit (making a subscription all the more valuable). The third issue contains eight stories, an essay by William F. Nolan about the death or undeath of John Dillinger, and the first part of John Grant's novel The Dragons of Manhattan. The latter is in place of the novellas that have been included in previous issues -- the format is the same (a separate book that lives alongside the rest of the issue in a slipcase), but this time, instead of getting a complete story, you get the first 100 pages. I loathe serializations with irrational passion, and so will not be reading the novel until I have all the pieces, and the decision to serialize Grant's book is frustrating, because the separate novellas seemed to me to be one of the best innovations of the magazine.

Clarkesworld Books has copies of all of the issues of Argosy, and I'll be curious to see if the new distribution strategy is successful at getting the book/magazine on the shelves of stores, particularly stores that don't specialize in genre fiction. I certainly hope so, and hope Argosy finds a broad audience, because the kind of generous, eclectic vision of the possibilities of fiction that has fueled the project from the start deserves support.

09 April 2005

The Russian Connection

The New York Times has an article that misses a major connection between two "hyperliterary" bands: Russia and Tolstoy.

The bands are The Decemberists and Okkervil River. The title of the first echoes the Decembrist Revolt of 1825, an event that, among other things, was the original inspiration for Tolstoy's War and Peace.

The members of Okkervil River admit that their name comes not only from the river outside St. Petersburg, but also from the magnificent story of that title in On the Golden Porch by Tatyana Tolstaya, the great-grandniece of Leo Tolstoy. (I adore Tolstaya's stories -- they are strange, enigmatic, elegant, haunting. Her second collection was Sleepwalker in a Fog, and she has also published a novel, The Slynx, and a collection of nonfiction, Pushkin's Children.)

Why did the Times choose these two bands, and then not mention their Russian connection? Commie conspiracy? Conservative coincidence? You decide...

("But the members of Okkervil River also have a connection to an unnamed town in New Hampshire." "What are you implying?" "Well, you've lived most of your life in New Hampshire." "So?" "Coincidence?" "Yes. I've never even heard their music." "But New Hampshire is a small state." "Indeed." "So you could know these people." "I don't. And they're in Oregon or someplace now." "You have a friend in Oregon." "That doesn't mean anything. I have friends all over." "A network of people you know?" "Well, not exactly. And they don't all know each other, so 'network' isn't--" "Separate cells of friends, then? All connected to you?" "Yes, but--" "Did you vote for George Bush in the last election?" "No, I--" "Would you mind coming with us for a bit of ... questioning?" "What? You're paranoid, I'm--" "Paranoid? We're paranoid?" [END OF TRANSMISSION])

It's the Ticket Prices, Stupids

I've spent most of my life involved in some sort of theatrical activity or another. Mostly community, high school, and college plays, but I was a Dramatic Writing major at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts for three years. Three good years, exciting years, but also deeply disillusioning years -- I learned that professional theatre in the U.S. is made by a small group of people for a smaller group of rich people. I decided that the American theatre had made itself irrelevant, and that its future in this country was to be as a minor form of tourist entertainment. (Thus, the investments of Disney in Times Square made sense.) I continue find the world of professional theatre more nauseating than appealing, and to find the sorts of theatre happening in small towns and high schools and colleges to be more inviting, varied, and creative than the professional forms.

One of the biggest influences on my view of what theatre is and can be has been Peter Brook, particularly his book The Empty Space, which remains my favorite book about the theatre, despite some of its '60s hippy-dippiness and oracular pronouncements. It remains one of the most vividly truthful books ever written about what it means to create theatre. Brook knows. He has spent his long life experimenting in various ways to create the most immediate, thoughtful, and arresting theatre he could imagine -- with, it seems, more successes than failures. In fact, one of the most breathtaking things I've ever seen was a bad videotape of Brook's production of Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard -- I hate plays on a TV screen, but this was mesmerizing, and the set primarily consisted of some rugs on the floor.

Now, Peter Brook is speaking out about the greatest sin of the theatre world: ticket prices. If you've gone to a play in New York recently, you know how horrible ticket prices are. Not just Broadway -- a couple years ago, I went to see a friend's show at a well-known Off-Broadway theatre, a play that had no set and four actors. One ticket cost over $50 once all fees were applied. I've given up going to my favorite theatre in Boston, the American Repertory Theatre, because the ticket prices are just too high. I've seen some of the best productions of my life there, but the cost was too great, and I just won't do it anymore.

Various theatre companies say they can't afford to produce good plays unless they charge the money they do. Don't believe them. They can't produce plays the way they do, certainly, but they probably shouldn't be producing them that way anyway, because all it has done is make the American theatre a despicably inbred, useless institution. Let the theatres die. Who will miss them? The playwrights and actors, perhaps, but fewer and fewer new plays are produced than ever before (would you risk seeing a play by a writer you've never heard of if it cost $50?!), and most actors already can't earn a living from the professional theatre.

Back in 1995, American Theatre magazine published an article by Theresa Rebeck, a playwright who had discovered that writing for TV was more fun and less elitist than writing for theatre (this made sense to anybody who'd read her plays, which read like prime time TV shows). I wrote a letter to American Theatre that was published in the February 1996 issue, and said, "...yes, most theatre is quite elite -- the rich can afford the tickets. The first priority of all theatre artists should be to lower ticket prices." (I was naive, and thought italics could change the world.) This was written under the influence of Peter Brook's writings, and I'm thrilled to see him now doing what he can to bring ticket prices toward something at least somewhat more reasonable.

In 1962, Wole Soyinka wrote an article called "Towards a True Theatre" (collected in Art, Dialogue, and Outrage) in which he criticized African universities for building large, expensive theatres, saying that "this is not America where -- to take one example, the Loeb Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts -- a university theatre is built for five to six million dollars, a stupid amoral example of affluent patronage." True theatre, according to Soyinka, does not come from comfortable spaces crammed full of the latest technology: "No one who is seriously interested in the theatre demands a playground for pushing buttons and operating gaily coloured panels."

Soyinka seems to have moderated his views over time, and his plays have been produced at some very large theatres throughout the world, but there's something to be said for his youthful idealism, because the American theatre, at least, has become so sodden with the practicalities of making money that a little idealism might be a good thing. With luck, Peter Brook won't be the only notable professional to do anything he can to make sure that ordinary people have access to the theatre.

Actually, my favorite words related to this subject are a haiku: Robert Hass's version of a poem by Kobayashi Issa:
Writing shit about new snow
for the rich
is not art.


There's a new phenomenon in the blogosphere: The LitBlog Co-op, where a large group of people who blog about books and literary stuff will work together to create a sort of online Oprah's Book Club. Without Oprah.

The roster of contributors is impressive -- some of the most interesting and influential bloggers out there. Plus me.

I've been too busy this week to fully investigate what I've gotten myself into by agreeing to do this, but once I know, I'll let you know. Right now I just know that we're going to be voting on what book to read first, and will announce that by May 15.

I was a miserable failure as a member of the Gaddis Drinking Club, but we'll see how I do here. (As long as they don't choose a dense, allusive, brilliant 900-page novel, I should be fine. Much as I love Gaddis, there just isn't time these days for that sort of reading.)

Meanwhile, you should definitely check out The Valve, another new group blog, this one of academic bloggers investigating the possibilities of literary studies. Despite this, there are some interesting posts, and some great potential.

Finally, I know it's been a little dull around here over the past couple weeks or so. It's likely to stay that way for the next few days, but by next week I should have finished with some other commitments and be able to spend a little bit more time in these here parts. At least, I hope so.

05 April 2005

Sighted (and Cited) at Other Sites

Sonya Taaffe has been interviewed at Bookslut by Geoffrey H. Goodwin. I can make the claim to having been the first to interview Sonya, but I'm glad I'm not the last, because she is overflowing with interesting things to say. For instance:
Ordinary life should not sacrifice its detail just because the man eating an avocado-and-sprouts sandwich in the kitchen happens to be a unicorn, nor should the strangeness of his presence be softened just because he likes vegetarian sandwiches and reads Rilke. (Ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich.) The otherworldly made totally mundane is just as bad as a fantasy where no one ever has dirt under their nails.
Every vegetarian unicorn eating sandwiches is terrifying...

Magma Poetry offers an amusing, contentious list from Roddy Lumsden of Mistakes Poets Make, including:
Ending. A. Poem. Like. This. Is. Often. Crap.
The new Internet Review of Science Fiction has been posted. Just when you thought it was safe to read it (because I haven't had anything in it this year), Jay Lake and Ruth Nestvold write the article "Is Slipstream Just a Fancy Word for Voice" and quote me. And then Bluejack goes and reviews my story "Variables", offering a description of it that I liked a lot: "Possibly, a time machine has been built. Possibly it has screwed up the world. Something has." (And do I mind that it's, at best, a mixed review? Not in the least. It's an honest and accurate review. That's what counts. If you want everybody to like everything you do, don't put it out there for any and all to read.)

I'm trying not to continue to talk about the stuff that got me cited by Lake and Nestvold, because I think I'd just keep repeating myself, and that can be an ugly sight. I think most of the people who have responded to my "Old Equations" column have raised interesting issues, developed the ideas in various new directions, and often been far more brilliant than I ever could have been (see in particular Hal Duncan and everyone in the comments section of David Moles's site, especially Ben Rosenbaum). At the moment, I'm rather fond of what Elizabeth Bear has to say.

04 April 2005

Event Horizon

One of the premiere SF webzines was Event Horizon, an early publisher of stories by the likes of Kelly Link, Jeffrey Ford, and Severna Park, as well as fiction by long-established pros like Gardner Dozois and Barry Malzberg. The site also featured nonfiction by Lucius Shepard, Jack Womack, Douglas Winter, and other names you might recognize.

Thanks to a comment in the previous post from Ellen Datlow, the editor of Event Horizon, I discovered that even though the old web address no longer works, the content is still entirely available via the Wayback Machine.

I had no luck getting past the first page with the Safari browser on a Mac, but after patient assurances from Ellen that, indeed, the entire content was really there, I switched over to Firefox, and, lo and behold, there it was.

A good way to see immediately what joys are available is through the site map. For reference, here are all the archived pages.


The Locus Portal in the Wayback Machine

I don't know about you, but I rely on the Locus links portal when wandering around the web, and I've relied on it for years now. Of course, all of Locus Online is great, and Mark Kelly does a phenomenal job keeping it updated and interesting, but the links portal is the page that gets the most consistent use from me.

I noticed today, and quite happily, that the list of weblogs on the portal nearly takes up an entire column now. It's an eclectic and ecumenical group, and impressive no matter how you slice and dice it. Within the last year, the list has seemed to grow with marvelous speed and fecundity. This made me wonder what it looked like in the good ol' days (which, in internet time, is a couple years ago).

Thanks to the ever-handy Internet Wayback Machine, we can see. On February 26, 2000, the earliest date for the portal page in the Wayback Machine, there were eight weblogs listed. I couldn't get Honeyguide to load, but all of the other original weblogs did, with only one, Windowseat, proclaimed to be on hiatus. Arts & Letters Daily, Romenesko's Media News, Memepool, Peterme.com, Robot Wisdom, and SciTech Daily are all going strong. (Hint: Click on the links at the archived portal page for some nostalgic fun.)

By February of 2001, the portal's design had changed, but the same weblogs were listed. By January 2002, there's one addition: Boing Boing. January 2003 shows some growth, with the title of the section now "Weblogs -- skiffish" and some contents shuffled to other categories. By October the category is called "SF Blogs & Journals", which is what it remains. By February 2004 the list is quite long, and civilization is imperiled by the inclusion of The Mumpsimus.

The range and diversity of weblogs has grown tremendously even in the short time since I started, and it's exciting to see so many different sorts of people adding their interests and ideas to the conversation.

By the way, does anybody have a weblog -- any category or subject welcome -- that you have discovered recently and find yourself returning to?

Who Says Blogging is for Egotists?

EWN: What innovative idea have you employed, or do you plan on using, at your site? i.e. - author keys, guest bloggers, guest reviewers, dueling viewpoints, updates :) etc.

Matthew: I link obsessively to anything I've written that appears elsewhere on the web, and there's nobody else foolish enough to do that.
Yes, that's me you see there as part of the Emerging Writers' Forum interview with various litbloggers. It's a fun group, including the masterminds behind some blogs I read avidly and some I haven't encountered before. Reading over my responses now, I see I was, by the second half, in a rather weird mood.

Here's another link: my latest Strange Horizons column, this one about the first James Tiptree, Jr. story I read. The column bloomed from some material I'd cut out of my SF Site Tiptree review.

02 April 2005

Notes from a Writer: Matt Hughes

If you read F&SF you know Matthew Hughes as the author of the witty and popular Henghis Hapthorn stories. You might also know Matt for his novels Fools Errant, Fool Me Twice, and Black Brillion, books that seem like a mix of Jonathan Swift, P.G. Wodehouse, and Jack Vance.

What you may not know, though, is that Matt is also a crime writer, having had a crime novel published in his home country of Canada and had short fiction in a variety of places, including Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

I had no idea of Matt's background in crime until he mentioned it in passing. Always curious what draws a writer to one type of fiction or another, I asked Matt how he went from crime to SF, and I got the following response...

by Matthew Hughes

I admire those people who can make a plan and follow it. You know the kind: they proceed from high school to university to an entry job then ever onward and upward, each succeeding notch on the resume becoming a firm foothold on a ladder that leads to whatever Olympian goal they have chosen.

I admire them, but apparently I cannot emulate them. Not that I haven't tried. Oh, how I have tried. And, oh, how many times has my long suffering spouse had to roll her eyes as we stand in the ruins of some grand attempt and I deliver my perennial line: "Okay, here's the plan..."

During the many years I worked as a freelance speechwriter, my aim was always to become a crime writer -- an author of hardboiled fiction, dark tales of treachery and violence carried out in the mean streets and shadowed corners of our contemporary world. I set myself a number of successive, reachable targets then began to work "The Plan," with some initial success. I sold a crime novel to a respectable Toronto publisher, Doubleday Canada. I sold my first story to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. I sold several more to Blue Murder, a wonderful web-based zine that died a tragic death in the dot.com collapse. I won the Canadian equivalent of an Edgar. I graduated from a Toronto agent (largely useless) to a New York agent (moderately useless). I wrote a couple of thrillers for the agent to pitch. I ghosted a medical thriller for a prominent US heart surgeon.

But while all this was happening there was this other, parallel track. Fifteen years before, I'd entered a famous Canadian literary contest: write a novel from scratch over the Labor Day long weekend. In a burst of enthusiasm, I had written 27,000 words in 72 hours. I called it Fools Errant, an allegorical Jack Vance-cum-P.G. Wodehouse pastiche. Later, I worked it up to more than 70,000 words with a subplot about a thaumaturge and threw in a handful of Mullah Nasruddinesque stories, and eventually got it published by Maxwell Macmillan Canada just in time for the Robert Maxwell empire to collapse and tumble the book into limbo.

By 1999, Fools Errant was but a faint regret and I was chugging along as a budding crime writer. Then I saw a Writers Digest interview with Warner Aspect's senior editor, Betsy Mitchell, who was looking for out-of-the-ordinary fantasies. I sent her Fools Errant. Her then assistant, Jaime Levine, now senior editor and Betsy's successor, championed the book and not only bought it, but commissioned a sequel, Fool Me Twice.

Then over several months, the crime writing stalled. My moderately useless agent was unable to sell either of the two thrillers I'd written, an opportunity at Avon disappeared when an editor was let go, and the main market for my shorts, Blue Murder, folded. Meanwhile, I wrote Fool Me Twice and outlined a third novel, because a book deal is a book deal, after all. The two Fool titles broke even for Warner, but these days that's not good enough, so they passed on a third. I shrugged and told myself, almost convincingly, that now I could go back to "The Plan" and be the crime writer I had set out to be.

Then a chance conversation with editor David Hartwell landed me a book deal at Tor. So I wrote Black Brillion, another science fantasy in a Vancean mode. To give the book a better chance than the first two, I began writing sf short stories set in the same universe as the novels -- the Archonate -- and selling them like hotcakes to Fantasy & Science Fiction and Asimov's, and lately to Interzone and Postscripts. I've also written a fourth Archonate novel, Template, whose fate is hanging fire at Tor while they wait to see how Black Brillion does.

But I've been increasingly aware that none of this has any relation to "The Plan." Instead of ascending rungs on a ladder, my career as a novelist has resembled Pearl Pureheart's progress across an ice-flecked river, leaping from one passing floe to another. Now I wonder if the Black Brillion floe will bear me up long enough for the Template floe to hove into a leapable distance? Or will I sink into the cold and unforgiving waters of has-beendom? Or perhaps never-quite-wasdom. Tune in for our next episode.

One thing I have noticed: increasingly, my sf stories slide toward crime fiction. The lead characters of Black Brillion are a pair of mismatched agents of the Archonate Bureau of Scrutiny -- a rigid, by-the-book scroot and a semi-reformed fraudster. The hero of half a dozen of my F&SF stories is Henghis Hapthorn, a Sherlock-Holmesian "freelance discriminator" of an improbable far future Earth. And now I've started writing the adventures of Luff Imbry, the con man from Black Brillion, in the years before he was conscripted into the scroots.

Somehow, in some back room of my mind, some part of me seems to be laboring to combine the elegance of "The Plan" with the untidiness of my floe-hopping reality. Come to think of it, that's just the kind of thing I often put my characters through. Which is worrisome. I'm not terribly nice to my characters.

Matthew Hughes's website: www.archonate.com

01 April 2005

A New Tone

I've decided that the tone at this weblog is too serious and stuffy, thus making it unlikely to communicate with an audience that matters. Dan Green recently told me in an email that he's hoping to change the tone of his site, keeping his posts no longer than 100 words and using no words with more than 4.5 characters and no compound sentences, because he hopes to start a campaign against elitism and for chick lit. This caused me to re-evaluate my own purposes and goals, and so here follows the first of my new entries....

w00t w00t!!!!! hey everybuddy i got a email from a REAL LIVE WRITER TODAY and i just totally was like I LOVE YOU!!!!!!!! and i wish i could tell u who it wuz but it's totally TOP SECRET!!!!!!!!!!!!

lou anders has a INTERVIEW WITH CHINA MIEVILLE and china looks in the illo like vin diesel **sigh!!!** (i got the link from lou anders blog which is new n is just da bomb.

so have you seen all the new info at locus about chucky stross and flamewars and anthologies and some big german company and lethem doing comics novels and star wars omg!!!!!!! it's so good you gotta read it all like NOW.

and wutz with all this death of SF talk huh? i mean like come ON people. reminds me of that great tom lehrer joke about the young necrophiliac who achieved his lifes dream by becoming county coroner. i SO identify.

did you see that fahrenheit 451 meme?

QUESTION: You're stuck inside Fahrenheit 451, which book do you want to be?

ANSWER: fahrenheit 451. duh!!!!!

heres a QUIZZZZZ!!!!!!!!!!!!

You're Brigitte Bardot!

What Classic Pin-Up Are You?
brought to you by Quizilla


New SF Site, Emerald City, and Rain Taxi

If you're looking for lots of reviews, now is your chance: new issues of SF Site, Emerald City, and Rain Taxi's online edition are alive and kicking.

The new SF Site includes a fairly long essay I wrote about two books from Tachyon Publications -- The James Tiptree Award Anthology 1 and Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, a reissue of the excellent collection of Tiptree's stories. The latter is one of the few truly essential collections of SF short fiction.