30 June 2005

Susie Bright Presents: Three Kinds of Asking for It

Below is the first of a series of guest reviews of forthcoming or recent books, this one a collection of erotic novellas reviewed by Torger Vedeler. If you're curious about his own fiction, Torger is the author of Intersect: A Love Story.

Susie Bright Presents: Three Kinds of Asking for It
Reviewed by Torger Vedeler

"Be careful what you wish for." We've all heard these words, have all had them told to us at one time or another. They form the basis of cautionary tales, of warnings, a healthy counterpoint to fantasy stories where there is a happily ever after, a reminder to us all that in the real world few stories end like Cinderella. Fantasies, of course, particularly sexual ones, desire a happy ending, an orgasm, true love. They are based ultimately on the desire to get what you wish for, to have that thing you cannot actually have.

And so it is with more than a touch of irony that the three novellas in Susie Bright's erotica collection Three Kinds of Asking for Itdeal not with the satisfaction of sexual fantasies but rather with their limitations, with the collision between the real world and the fantasy one. In this way they cannot be considered pornography, as it is an essential feature of porn that the audience (or more to the point the intended audience) achieve satisfaction by having their desires met, their fetish or fantasy, whatever it is, played out as the most amazing and perfect thing ever, with no consequences.

But in the real world, getting what you want does have consequences, and this is one of the main things that separates literary erotica from porn. This is what makes the three offerings here more than simply something to turn you on.

Eric Albert begins with Charmed, I'm Sure, the tale of David, a man who wants simple sex, easy sex, sex without risk or effort. He wants the fantasy of it, and one day he gets his chance: magic, of course, will grant him this, for a price. Here the price is monetary, a swipe of David's credit card and anyone will do anything sexual that he wants them to. And so, a few thousand dollars poorer, he launches into an ever more complicated spiral of sex with anyone and everyone, graphic and ongoing.

But the price goes up too, because David's acts have consequences. To be able to command sex brings up questions of consent, of rape, and he must pay to make those he has sex with forget what he has done to them, must pay to erase the reality of his own uncontrolled desires. He must pay to prevent pregnancy and disease. And on and on he pays, until he discovers that the one thing he most needs is a thing he cannot buy.

In Greta Christina's Bending we see a different sort of desire, a fetish. To Dallas, sex is about bending over, about being bent over, about her bottom and things her partners do to and with her bottom. Fetishes, however they manifest themselves, are a common feature of human sexuality, far more common than most people or psychologists are willing to admit, appearing in everything from panties to cars to feet to knives. And so even if we do not share Dallas' predilection, a part of us cannot help but understand it, and the dilemma of it.

For the key to a fetish is that it can never be entirely fulfilled, just as actually living our deepest fantasies usually serves in the end only to cheapen them. Dallas tries nonetheless, with the help of lovers and friends. She becomes her fetish, and only her fetish, again in graphic detail. The result are consequences, both for her and those around her. The real world intrudes. The fetish is fun, but in the end it is a finite thing.

Jodi K, by Jill Soloway, is in some ways the most ambitious of the three works in this collection. The protagonist, Jodi, is fourteen, at that awkward age when sex is real but society denies that it is, when anxiety and vulnerability are so very close to the surface, when there is so much yet to discover about ourselves. Jodi is remarkably real, speaking in the language of a fourteen-year-old, issues of friends and school and boys being very large to her, when she discovers herself fantasizing about her best friend's father. Like many fantasies, this one has no reason behind it, no clear and logical cause; it simply is, and like all fantasies it exerts tremendous power over her.

The reality, of course, is very different, as she discovers. The reality is that if she seeks out her fantasy it will impact those around her. It will have (there's that word again) consequences.

What is most interesting is that despite the skill of each of these writers at writing sex, these stories are less arousing than we might think. David and Jodi quickly become unsympathetic as they pursue their desires with little thought of the people they are using, and Dallas, by becoming only her fetish, her bottom, is far less interesting as that fetish than she is when she discovers its limitations. While unsympathetic characters are usually seen as a bad thing in any story (especially one meant to arouse us), here the effect is positive, as these stories provide us with insight into the real world of sex, the one that inevitably intrudes on our fantasies.

And that's the key to this collection: reality intrudes. Stories about sex are commonplace these days, especially with the rise of the internet; a big erotica/porn site like Literotica.com (adults only, please!) has literally tens of thousands of erotic tales to suit almost any predilection. But the majority of such stories end there, with the orgasm or other satisfaction, and we must ask: could they and would they have been written for reasons other than simple arousal? Do we learn something about ourselves from them? Charmed, I'm Sure, Bending, and Jodi K give us more than just sex; they give us complexity and show us that sex, even sexual fantasy, exists in the context of our broader lives. None of these novellas argue against having fantasies, even naughty ones, but they do remind us that fantasy, sexual or otherwise, needs to be kept in context. These stories remind us that to be human is to be sexual, and that to be sexual requires taking responsibility for it, neither to suppress our feelings completely nor to give in to them completely. What we do with sex and what we do to get sex have consequences, like anything else in life.

Be careful what you wish for.

A Perfect Example of Bad Reviewing

One of the problems in the SF field is that, in general, the reviewing is just so bad -- not negative, but cautious, general, fueled by hype, uncritical, and useless as anything other than a statement of, "I liked it," or "I didn't like it". There are certainly exceptions, and the problem is not limited to SF, but it is pervasive.*

When the Dark Cabal blog started out, I had hopes that the pseudonymous writers would use their pseudonymity to say things with some force, much as was done with Cheap Truth in the '80s. I'd hoped for some fireworks and bloodsport. Instead, the blog has been incredibly dull, and nothing has yet been said that justifies the writers hiding behind false names.

But I am grateful to one of their writers, who has taken up the ferocious name of Safe Light, for providing two paragraphs that are the epitome of reviewing at its worst, in a short post about Richard Bowes's story "There's a Hole in the City":
I find Bowes story affecting, but the fantastic element isn't the part that moved me most. I found it hard to read it as fiction -- it felt too much like an article or a blog entry. It felt too real.

In the end, I don't believe in Bowes' ghosts. But I do believe in his people, and in their pain and confusion and sense of being lost, but at least being lost together.
This is self-indulgent writing, not because of all the personal pronouns, but because none of the statements are supported with any sort of evidence, and so all we have here is a personal reaction that is completely and totally useless. Why should we care that Safe Light believed or didn't believe in anything in the story? The questions "Why?" and "How?" hover after every sentence in those paragraphs, and no answer is provided. Opinions are the least important part of any review -- the explanations of the opinions are what matter, because the explanations are what allow the review to become something other than a personal statement. A good reviewer is one who is thought-provoking even when the reader entirely disagrees with the opinions stated. Safe Light gives us nothing to agree or disagree with -- okay, so you "found it hard to read as fiction". So what? If this led to a discussion of what it is that makes us believe or not believe in something as fiction, well, that would be interesting. If it led to a discussion of why the reviewer finds it important to believe in fiction as fiction, that would be interesting. If it led to ... anything ... that would be at least a little bit more interesting than an empty proclamation of personal taste that masquerades as a meaningful statement.

*And before you start combing through things I've written to find passages that are cautious, general, fueld by hype, uncritical, and useless, let me just say that I'd be a fool to exempt myself. I keep thinking about reviewing because I keep trying to figure out better ways to write reviews, not because I want to hold anything of my own up as an example of perfection. Maybe in the future I'll analyze some of my own bad reviewing, which would only be fair.

28 June 2005

A Few Quick Notes

Things are going to slow down here for a little bit, for mundane reasons of everyday life. Soon there will be a bunch of reviews by various guest reviewers, though, and I'll try to post at least a little bit each week myself.

And now some things to note: The best short story collection of the year has finally been released: Magic For Beginnersby Kelly Link (you can find out more at the Small Beer Press site for it). I've read most of the book now, though haven't yet had a chance to read the title novella. Many of the stories I read when they were first published, but I liked them even more on returning to them, and the new stories are equally wonderful. This is inventive, intelligent, elegant fiction from a writer who truly deserves that over-utilized adjective unique. There are only a handful of short story writers whose work I read with as much pleasure and excitement as Kelly's, and as impressed as I was with her previous collection, I think this one is vastly better.

You might not know that Kelly Link is, in addition to being a writer, a slush editor for SciFiction. But of course, the omniscient (and occasionally beneficent) Slush God knows this, and has just interviewed her about this aspect of her life.

Speaking of the Slush God, I've now received the latest issue (August) of the magazine at which he toils, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and it includes a new story by not only M. Rickert, but also Eugene Mirabelli, whose last story for the magazine, "The Only Known Jump Across Time", I wrote about in one of the earliest posts for this site. Of course, I haven't had time to read either story yet, but it always brightens my day to have a new story by M. Rickert arrive, and especially to have it arrive along with a new Eugene Mirabelli story. (You know folks, life could only get better than this if supreme executive power derived from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.)

In completely other, and entirely less important, news: I will be at ReaderCon (probably Friday afternoon, all day Saturday, and part of Sunday), and would appreciate any interventions people offer to keep me from spending money in the dealers' room.

24 June 2005

Gadzooks! Good 'Zines!

I sat down to write a review of a recent 'zine (that is, little little magazine) and decided I didn't like this particular issue as much as some past ones, so I passed on it, but then I went and caught up with some others that had been waiting patiently for attention, and then I started making connections in my head, and began to write those connections down, and now I'm 3,000 words into an article about some of them -- an article that may, once I actually read it, prove to be idiotic and in need of being put out of its misery, so I thought I should point you toward the new issues of 'zines that are most definitely worth your money, because if I wait to do it till I've finished the article ... well, it might never get done, and these fun little publications deserve at least a bit of support:

First, Christopher Rowe and Gwenda Bond edit Say... [insert question here], and the latest (fifth) issue is Say...Have You Heard That One?. They're having a subscription drive with prizes. I wasn't as blown away with this issue as with issue four, so if you haven't read that one, be sure, when you buy your subscription, to also ask for back issues (I don't know if they even have any, but it's worth asking). The current issue reads well and is fun, particularly Larry Hammer's story "Paul Bunyan and the Photocopier", which caused me to laugh mightily, because I have lost many hours of my life to evil photocopiers.

My subscriptions have just run out to both Flytrap and Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. This is a bad thing, and I must repent of my sins and soon correct the problem, especially since I have looked upon the latest two issues and I have found them to be Good. The fourth issue of Flytrap seems to me to be the most solid one yet. I don't think it has some of the Truly Extraordinary stories of a couple past issues, but there are also no stories that are just eh. There's a Secret Life by Jeff VanderMeer (this one of a librarian), a bunch o' poems by Daphne Gottlieb, a column by Nick Mamatas that might annoy some people, but that I really loved. Some musing on words by Jed Hartman. Some short reviews. Oh, and fiction. By lots of great people like Karen Meisner, Jeremy Adam Smith, Michael Canfield, Jay Lake, Jeffrey Ford, Theodora Goss, Melissa Marr, and Sonya Taaffe (who is also in Say.... She's the 'Zine Queen. And she's has two books published this year. Eeek -- I just went to the Prime site and discovered that a comment I made here has not only been posted as a blurb, but moves across the top like a CNN scroll on crack! [Blush.] Prime publishes a lot of great books, that's all there is to it.) Jeffrey Ford's "Holt" is odd and enigmatic, and Theodora Goss's "The Belt" is kind of disturbing (in a good way), and one of the best stories I've read from her since the classic "Rose in Twelve Petals" (which may be too recent to be called a classic, but will be seen as such someday, so I don't mind using the word now). I also thought Jay Lake's "The Lizard of Ooze" was probably the best story of his I've read -- utterly zany and wildly inventive.

LCRW is always fun, but the fifteenth issue is particularly fun, with goofy things like Benjamin Rosenbaum and Paul Melko's "Collaborations by Well-Known Twentieth-Century Authors Which Were Rejected By Their Publishers and Are Now Collected", a kind of McSweeney's-esque piece of amusement, but actually amusing (the collaboration between Gertrude Stein & Dr. Seuss: Green Eggs and Ham and Ham and Eggs and Eggs and Ham So Green So Green). The poetry in this issue of LCRW is also quite strong -- by Nan Fry, Mary A. Turzillo, Carol Smallwood, and Suzanne Fischer. All very much worth reading. Gwenda Bond is here, too, as Aunt Gwenda the advice columnist, this time getting a little bit unhinged by the thought of having to live for four more years with George W. Bush as the millionaire in the Oval Office instead of whichever millionaire it was who was running against him (oh, yeah, Treebeard). There are some good short stories this issue, too, though the only piece that was as good as the best stories published in last year's issue is Stepan Chapman's "The Life of Saint Serena", which is the funniest story I've read in a long time. It's truly a perfect story, with not one false sentence. And some of the sentences are about horse excrement.

23 June 2005

An Entirely Informal Conversation about Howl's Moving Castle

To do a formal review of Howl's Moving Castle, I would want to see it again, and see the subtitled version rather than the dubbed. But there were a number of images, questions, and moments that stayed with me, and I wanted to work through a few of them, so I asked Geoffrey Goodwin, with whom I watched Howl, if he wouldn't mind doing a completely informal discussion of the movie, and he agreed.

(Note: One of the references that recurs in the discussion is to something we talked about while trekking around Cambridge in search of the theatre where Howl was playing: We thought it might be fun to create a new Latest Dark Cabal. I don't remember why we settled on the title we did, but it amused us at the time.)

GG: Are we going to do this under our real names or as Dark Cabal II: Babies with Weaponry?

MC: Definitely The Latest Latest Dark Cabal: Babies with Weaponry.

You said after the movie that you were surprised you cared as much about Howl as you did. Have you thought any more about that? I suggested perhaps it came from the early scene where Howl -- before we know who he is -- rescues Sophie from some obnoxious soldiers.

GG: I've come up with a few possibilities for why I rooted for Howl from early on, one of which seems to hold water.

It could be that Howl rescues Sophie from the soldiers and then lets the evil black goop chase him instead -- echoed later by his making her invisible and luring the pursuers away when she's learning to pilot the wacky escape craft -- or it could be that Christian Bale's voice had instant cred for saving Gotham from the Scarecrow earlier in the week [in Batman Begins], but I think (and hope I'm right) that what really gave Howl my early sympathies was that he was being stalked by a shadowy presence from the get go.

Having not read the book, I didn't know who he was -- but malevolent entities (that were gloomy but had rhythm) chasing after him made me care about him and hope he'd be okay. You can call me shallow if you want, but I might have sympathies for any stranger who's being chased by mysterious black goop.

MC: You do realize, don't you, that once people read this, you're going to be besieged by people who expect sympathy just because they've been chased by black goop? You're leaving yourself wide open here!

Howl had my sympathies right from the beginning because he looked like a glam rocker the morning after a really wild night. Each to their own, I guess.

He seemed a kind of Byronic hero to me, even more in the movie than the book. In the book he's just egotistical, but in the film he's more obviously flamboyant. It's almost a disappointment when he matures, stops being moody, and becomes responsible. Some of the last scenes are positively domestic.

GG: Yes, I do realize what I've opened myself up for. And the door's wide open. In fact, here and now, I hereby (and now-by) establish a Black Goop support group. We'll hold meetings right after twilight on the eleventeenth of every month, right across from Howl's shack in the flowery glen. Stop in, have a sit -- both the tea and sympathy will be free. (As a disclaimer though: the amortization rates on shame and dignity will approach a breathless death faster than most would ever expect...but such is the nature of Black Goop support groups!)

I agree, the Howl character looked glamtastic, a Jeepster for Sophie's love and the throb of anyone else who happened to amble by...but my quandary was how Howl won my particular sympathies, because the "unfortunate hair and moping" scene made me question why I'd originally liked him.

Members of Poison, Winger, Warrant and even Trixter dressed as glammy as the laws of physics and spandex allowed yet didn't offer a millionth the frission of Bowie or Ronson, so (for me) it couldn't have just been the outfit.

And wild nights don't impress me. Wizards who party like it's 2099 (the actual year not the Marvel Comics imprint that went under for being, um, ahead of its time) and then manifest mad wizardry early the next morning while the other scenesters are still clocking their pillows...that impresses me.

You're right about domesticity being shown as a cherished goal. Cleaning and cooking are held on par with magick. It's almost like the Old Sophie made a snack so everyone figured she must've been a witch. This may explain a great deal about Martha Stewart and Nigella Lawson. Along those lines, do you think a complicated parallel could be drawn across Miyazaki's work -- as if the rage from being anti-war/greed, pro-environment and such (on a planet that seems to be losing faith in such principles) -- is softening toward a "Hey, there might be a nasty war and things falling apart but we can still cherish the small stuff" vibe?

As a corollary, Miyazaki declared retirement after both Mononoke and Spirited Away

(according to stories that I read somewhere or another, more than once, which means that everything is actual and satisfactual, even the princely neighbor who's randomly freed from his Buddha Scarecrow Nature in the final seconds)

and then rumbled back to direct his last two films, with HMC coming to him when Mamoru Hosoda (it seems) wasn't going to do it right (in Miyazaki's eyes?) -- so therefore, isn't the film a mediatation on how it's pleasant to find fire, childhood dreams and a cozy shack all at the same time? Or have a just smeared my wants across someone else's canvas?

MC: (It may take me a while to forgive you for evoking the names of Poison, Winger, Warrant, and Trixter.)

Actually, in some ways I kept thinking of Howl as William Beckford, but I have only superficial knowledge of Beckford's life. And then Howl's a French Decadent, too -- he even oozes absinthe-colored goo when he's depressed and dissipated. I guess it says more about me than the movie that I adored him because I kept thinking of him as a mix of Beckford, Baudelaire, and Bowie.

Domesticity, yes -- so is this an old, successful man's dream in his twilight days? Maybe. The war scenes were effective, but they didn't have the polemical power of similar scenes in other films, particularly Princess Mononoke, which can be a pretty shocking film if, as I was when I first saw it, you're not used to the idea of violent animation. The war scenes in Howl don't have any hurt, and I never really felt like the characters were truly in jeopardy. The ending was a reconciliation not against war, but against having to live a life with any requirements other than making sure the doddery old lady doesn't fall off the back of the castle.

To me, the ending was a kind of dream, or, less charitably, a resignation to the formula of an innocuous fairy tale, as if Miyazaki got to a point in the story where he thought, "Well, I can either end it honestly, in which case it will be the most depressing movie since Grave of Fireflies, or else I can just make it a Disney-style fairy tale." It doesn't have the complexity of the endings of most of his other films, which are more world-weary, more ambiguous, more a realization that fantasy ultimately gets trumped by reality for anybody who's sane. (Although this is less true of the dubbed version of Spirited Away than the original, so I'm slightly wary, since we saw the dubbed Howl. But it was just a matter of dialogue in Spirited Away, and here it was the entire last scene.)

A day later, what remains most vivid for you from the film?

GG: Thoughts that are in the forefront, now like 40 hours later:

*) Billy Crystal's voice wasn't helpful. Perhaps he's too iconic / recognizable for the role...and therefore not convincing as the fire demon.

*) Sophie's character is not as memorable as Howl, perhaps because she changed shape and voice. That interests me because I would've figured it'd be the opposite, that her polyphony and guises would make her stand out more. It does remain interesting that she aged without gaining new wisdom, inverting the typical equation. I still care about her, I just don't wonder about her future.

*) I understand and agree that Howl was archetypal in the French Decadent (or glam-decadent, archetypal anime lead) way and feel that his arc is tragic until the forced happy ending. In my head, I keep wondering about other endings. Is this a curse of the DVD era and bonus footage? Or, is the happy kiddie ending the result of market pressures. If it's in my head, it's the former. If it stands out even more in a second viewing, it's the latter. It might make sense to view Miyazaki as the sort of pessimist who doesn't want to bum people out as they leave the theater, a dytopian who believes in happy endings.

*) Got war? I've noticed the trend to throw war (like a glamour?) as a backdrop. I really like how Carol Emshwiller has deployed the motifs as of late. There's always been war, but when it flares up in the "real" "world," I understand it leaking into our fantasies and dreams. Thus, the war was added -- from what I've heard from you and others who've read the book -- but it worked for me. I like that it was nonspecific feuding. We didn't get an explanation of the sides or the reasons -- and I'm fine with that, because PKD and Grant Morrison have taught us that empires never end. I agree that Mononoke's war was much more frightening. I wonder how the jolly soldiers feel about magic. If those two worlds, soldiering and wizardry, interacted in the film, I missed it.

*) When I see HMC again, it might behoove me to give attention to Howl's shack. I want to understand its role more. There's a rich paradox between the lumbering castle that moves around to avoid detection and the pastoral shack that stays still but can be reached from doors that might be anywhere.

*) The idea that one can stop a fall by simply walking is lingering for me. It seemed cheesy at first yet now I'm still thinking about it. I'm reminded of The Hitchhiker's Guide and how one can fly by forgetting to fall or land. There's a parallel in remembering / forgetting that the ground exists.

*) The last wiggling thought makes less sense, but I'll try. It ties to the forced / kiddie ending. Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade, which I saw with grad school friends in probably 2001, has leaped back into my head even though I barely remember it. I can only presume that it is gritty and dark in ways Mononoke must've been and HMC isn't. I want to see HMC again, for many reasons, but understanding Howl's shack (and how war is there too, and the youthful pact with the fire demon, etc.) might help me understand the domesticity. I know I'm not making sense, but rewatching Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade and then HMC, there'll be an insight into culture, fantasy or art. I know it's there, I just don't know what it is.

So, it's early and I'm late, but those are this morning's vivid bits. Knowing me, the film's starting to fade and I'm beginning to superimpose my own poetics on top of it.

MC: Billy Crystal definitely made me wish we'd chosen to see the subtitled version, but I loved Lauren Bacall as the Witch of the Waste. Crystal just didn't fit the character, and he did his Billy Crystal schtick the whole time.

Sophie's not as flamboyant as Howl, so didn't draw my attention as much, but the moment when she looked in the mirror and saw herself old was, I thought, powerful. Also the moment when she said to Howl that she'd never been beautiful. I found her to be a more realistic character, more grounded. Her quick acceptance of her change (and this is true for the book, too, though to a lesser extent) requires a big suspension of disbelief, but perhaps in a world where magic is common, it wouldn't have been quite as shocking as I imagine it to be.

I think we're one of the few eras in the history of the world that could say that war as a backdrop seems like an appeal to the zeitgeist, since most of human history really is one where war is the backdrop. I liked how petty and unspecific the war was, too -- it's all hinted at, whispered about. I think there were more opportunities to integrate it into the story, but it didn't really bother me, because ultimately it felt like what I imagined the war would feel like to Sophie: something out there, something vague, something frightening but distant.

The soldiering and the magic interacted a little bit with the character of Suliman and with the wizards who have been turned into flying bombs. Do you mean the ordinary soldiers themselves, the cannon fodder?

The shack. Hmmm. I didn't give a lot of attention to that. I saw it as the pastoral calm, where Howl could keep one part of himself sane and quiet. And then that got threatened by the war, too. Part of his decision finally to act and try to end the war may have come as much from his sense that his one place of peace was threatened as from his sense that Sophie was in danger.

Any final thoughts?

GG: I still feel like a Philistine for preferring the dubbed. I know, deep down in my innards, that subtitles are purer. I just have trouble watching and reading a film at the same time. The words take priority. And yes, Billy Crystal schticks to the rowf of the mowf like peanut butter.

Perhaps Sophie comes across as less of a hero because the Witch of the Waste becomes so defeated that Sophie has to take care of her. If there'd been a big swordfight in a pit full of snakes, I'd see Sophie, young or old, differently.

Yes, I wondered how the everyday soldiers, with their carousing and such, would view the magicians. They'd have to view each other as separate classes. The opening bit with Howl stopping the harassment of Sophie might've given a peek, but it seemed to be an unexplored path.

I think everyone should see HMC. Miyazaki is as good as animated fantasy gets, even if things can Disneyify a bit. Ideally, there'd be a shadow cabinet of babies with both weaponry and cash who could give him the resources to do an adaptation (for adults) of the stories in Haruki Murakami's After the Quake.

MC: It's a fascinating, imperfect movie. Thanks, Geoff.

For quite a different discussion of Howl's Moving Castle, check out Coffee & Ink, where the conversation is well informed by readers who know and love Diana Wynne Jones's novel, the inspiration for the movie.

21 June 2005


New is the new black, so here are some news, although a lot of them were found by other people, so they may not be news to all yous:
The new Ratbastards Website is now alive and biting. Go there and order the new chapbook. I'm not going to review this one, since I'm in it, so all I can do now is exhort you to spend the piddling little amount it costs and get yourself a great collection of stories by writers who are extraordinarily smart and talented. I was included because the editors were terrified I'd write another review, but the other stories are very much worth the time and money, and you can use the pages mine's on to take notes about why the other stories are good (because they are). Not that the Ratbastards publishing good stories is anything new. Even if they do occasionally slip sometimes and include weird drivel by me. Me writing weird drivel is nothing new.

The new issue of Strange Horizons has a new columnist, Christina Socorro Yovovich. And new fiction, poetry, art, and an article.

The new Fortean Bureau has lots of new fiction and a column by Nick Mamatas in which Nick says bad things about Lemony Snicket, who had said bad things about Lovecraft.

Charles Stross's new book is now available for free download, as is Cory Doctorow's. Both writers write things that are very new in their newness. They are the prophets of new, the New New.

Margaret Atwood has a new position on whether she writes science fiction.

Jim Sallis's new Reading Life column for the Boston Globe is about a new biography of Poe.

There's a new graphic adaptation of The War of the Worlds, with new installments each week. (via SF Signal)

There's nothing new in this stupidity, but it's nice to see a science fiction writer who knows something about science respond to it. That's not entirely new, but it's certainly welcome. I stole the links from Science Fiction Blog, where Edward Bryant is one of the contributors, a fact that is new to me. (I'm assuming this is the Edward Bryant, but I could be wrong, which would not be new.)

The newest post at Giornale Nuovo has some marvelous old pictures by Jean-Jacques Lequeu. The imaginary architectures are particularly nice.

20 June 2005

Fragmentary Thoughts Rescued from a Weekend of Culture

I spent the past weekend in the Boston area, and so had a chance for more cultural activities than I usually do. First was an alumni event for the school I work at: a trip to see the Boston Pops orchestra perform a salute to Stephen Sondheim, who celebrated his 75th birthday in March.

Despite having spent an awful lot of time in theatres, I'm not a big fan of musicals, but Sondheim's work is an exception, and the performance at Symphony Hall was magnificent, because the songs were performed by Broadway veterans Marin Mazzie, Greg Edelman, and Faith Prince as well as five younger performers from the Tanglewood Music Center (two were excellent, one was good, two were pretty awful). The choice of material was particularly strong -- I've got a bunch of CDs of Sondheim retrospectives, most of which have one or two good performances, but are, as a whole, forgettable because they try to cover Sondheim's entire career and end up being stretched too thin to be coherent. The selection of songs here was brilliant: a few from Act I of Sweeney Todd, including both "The Worst Pies in London" and "A Little Priest" (I think the friends I was sitting with were a bit horrified by my maniacal glee during the latter -- but really, how can you not be delighted by lines such as "And we have some shepherd's pie peppered/ With actual shepherd on top!"), then a handful from Sunday in the Park with George, then a couple from Merrily We Roll Along, including the horrendously difficult "Opening Doors" to end the first half of the performance. The pieces from Merrily were particular fun for me, because I directed the show a few years ago, and some of the people who were in it were with us at Pops. The second half commenced with solos by Faith Prince ("The Ladies Who Lunch" from Company), Greg Edelman ("If You Can Find Me, I'm Here" from Evening Primrose), and Marin Mazzie ("Losing My Mind" from Follies). All were excellent, but Mazzie's was simply perfect, both musically and emotionally. Then came five songs from Into the Woods and the finale, part 2 of "Old Friends" from Merrily We Roll Along, an odd choice that they pulled off well.

Anyway, a phenomenal evening, and one I hope will makes its way to PBS's "Evening at Pops" series and perhaps even an album, because it deserves to be preserved. (Ed Siegel's review for the Globe seems mostly accurate to me.)

Then came Sunday, when I met up with Geoffrey Goodwin (who you might know from Bookslut) at Pandemonium Books in Harvard Square and we wandered off to Kendall Square to go see Howl's Moving Castle. This ended up being a bigger endeavor than we counted on, though, because neither of us knew how to get to the Kendall Square Cinema, and directions we got made it seem much farther away from the subway than it really is, so we ended up walking through Cambridge for a couple of hours on a quest for the theatre. By the time we found it, we were exhausted and famished, so we bought tickets to the 5pm show and then went off in search of food. You would not think this would be difficult in a city, but while Harvard Square had been bustling, Kendall Square was eerily empty of people and every restaurant we found was closed except for a pub that was too enamored with meat for two vegetarians to be able to get any food at. Finally, desperately, we ended up at an Au Bon Pain. So here's some advice: If you go to Kendall Square on a Sunday, bring your own food. And if anybody tells you the Kendall Square Cinema is really far away, don't believe them.

But we finally saw the film, and it was magnificent. It's not perfect -- the ending ties things up too hastily -- but it's richly detailed, mysterious, evocative, haunting, funny, touching, and endlessly inventive. Only about 15 minutes of the movie draw very closely from the original novel, which may disappoint some Diana Wynne Jones fans, but I loved what Miyazaki did with the material, and it actually made me appreciate some of the original elements of the book more, though I still remain essentially impervious to what I'm told are the novel's charms (well, I liked the first quarter or so of the book, but not so much after that). I expect to have something more here about Howl's Moving Castle in the next week or two, but for now I'll just say that while it's not Miyazaki's best movie, it's unlikely you'll find a better film in theatres this summer, so even if it takes time and sacrifices to go see it, you should.

Reviewers Wanted

My apartment is now officially overrun with books, and I need to get rid of a bunch of books gracious publishers have sent. Below are ones I'm certain I'm not going to get to, so if anything appeals to you on the list, and you'd like to read it and write a guest review for The Mumpsimus, send me an email, and I'll let you know if the book is still available. Here's the list, with Amazon links so you can find out more if you're curious:If any of those sound appealing, and you'd be willing to write a thoughtful review (not just a summary), then let me know and I'll send you the book.

Update: I forgot another whole pile, so here are some more books. I'll use the comments to keep track of which ones are spoken for.Update 6/21: Most of the books are now taken. Remaining are:
Dead in the West and The Boar
the proof copy of Rivers of War
Settling Accounts
Running from the Deity
The God Particle

18 June 2005

"There's a Hole in the City" by Richard Bowes

I tried hard to dislike Richard Bowes's story "There's a Hole in the City". Because it somehow seems crass to write fiction about September 11, 2001, to use real tragedy to evoke a reader's sympathy for imagined characters. Because it's so easy to become maudlin and sentimental about tragedies, to invoke God and Hallmark, to trivialize. Because a short story just shouldn't try to encompass all that. Because we risk losing real emotion through knee-jerk responses. Because.

But the story gripped me with more force than anything I've read in months. The matter-of-fact, journalistic tone helps make the emotions of the story truthful rather than overblown. The details of life in the altered landscape of downtown Manhattan are convincing, and I found the story particularly haunting because I was a student at NYU for three years and lived and worked in the area Bowes describes, though by 2001 I was in New Hampshire.

The story is complex, even enigmatic, without being baffling. It's a ghost story (as was the only other story about September 11 I've read that has impressed me, Lucius Shepard's "Only Partly Here", which I wrote about last year), and while I can imagine a less careful writer deciding to create a story of scary hauntings to try to jerk the reader into feeling the terror of that time, Bowes has more taste and tact than that. His ghosts are the ghosts of memory, the ghosts of dreams, the ghosts of despair. They are the shadows that haunt a consciousness rattled by events too large for the mind to absorb all at once.

I feel like there should be more to say, but one of the wonders of the best fiction is that through words it builds something beyond words in our brains, and while that something-beyond-words remains strong, there's no need to say more.

17 June 2005

A Footnote to an Echo

Waggish is writing a series of posts about concepts of genre and quality, thinking out loud about a distinction between exceptional and exemplary genres:
So, we have two rough categories for placing tight genre product: first, exemplary genres, where the best work represents the ideal summation of what all the genre product aims at, and second, exceptional genres, where the best work stands out because of its departure from the genre's standards.

...in the exemplary case, the best work does not emerge from particular talents but across the board, while in the exceptional case, it is the peculiarities of individual creators that give the best work its shape and form. Indeed, it's the issues of shape and form themselves that seem to determine whether genres can succeed on their own merits, or whether they require the intervention of a particular individual to bring their own idiosyncrasies to mediocre requirements.
These ideas grew out of posts on, first, film comedies of the 1930s, then science fiction. I have only superficial knowledge of the first, but somewhat better knowledge of the second, so will focus on what Waggish has to say about that.

Waggish sees genre science fiction as exceptional rather than exemplary, an evaluation that is nearly self-evident. It was, after all, a science fiction writer who came up with Sturgeon's Law -- an exemplary genre would be one that defied that law. There have been exemplary moments, though: SF short fiction in the 1980s seems to me to be one, particularly the fiction published by Ellen Datlow at Omni and the stories in Asimov's in the first four or five years of Gardner Dozois's editorship (c. 1986-1991).

But the really interesting point Waggish makes isn't so much tied to the basic delineation of exemplary vs. exceptional as to what it means for the genre as a whole: the writers who have the most staying power are the writers who subvert genre tropes rather than exemplify them. Examples don't have to come from trend-bucking young turks, either, as Waggish shows:
A good example of the back and forth around the ideas of this genre is in Richard Harter's analysis of Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations." I think the story and its theme--nature's uncaring hand--is trite, and could be easily used to condemn the impoverishment of ideas in the genre. But what interests me here is the fact that the story is defined in relation to its variation from the norm. Unlike most genre sf stories, the heroine dies. Unlike most stories, there is no hope. Unlike most of the stories, morality doesn't determine the outcome. The prestige of the story is defined in terms of its variation from the norm, which is implicitly condemned.
Such pushing against the established norms of the genre has characterized the most praised SF stories since Hugo Gernsback quantified what was and wasn't acceptable "scientifiction" for Amazing Stories. The stories John Campbell wrote as Don A. Stuart stunned readers by employing "poetic" moods and styles in magazines mostly devoted to the pulpiest of space adventures; Asimov's robot stories were deliberately set up to subvert the idea of the Frankenstein-type rampaging monster created by mad scientists; Ray Bradbury eschewed science altogether and wrote weird, imagistic parables using the props of science and science fiction. The editors who are best remembered from the earlier years of SF -- Campbell at Astounding and Unknown, H.L. Gold at Galaxy, Boucher and McComas at F&SF, Michael Moorcock at New Worlds, Judith Merrill with the Best SF collections, Harlan Ellison with Dangerous Visions -- are remembered because they tried to get writers to do something that was different from the norm, rather than an exemplary version of it.

Where are we now, though? Is science fiction a footnote to its own echo? Perhaps we're entering a phase where the ideas and models of the previous SF become a kind of mythos from which writers can build endless contemporary variations, the way some fantasy writers keep rewriting the myths of various cultures. This also gives an answer to the question of what science fiction will become when non-SF writers freely use ideas and techniques previously the property of SF writers, as seems to be the current trend with much contemporary fiction -- science fiction's last remaining definition is fiction that builds from the ideas and templates of previous science fiction. This seems more like a recipe for a feedback loop than for valuable and vital literature, but the writer who draws from sources other than science fiction's past now runs the danger of writing something that is simply fiction rather than science fiction.

Kafka: The Blog

Thanks to Pseudopodium, I've learned that Kafka's diaries are now becoming a blog (and you can choose to read either in English or German). This is not the first time a classic diary has been converted to the weblog format (there's the The Diary of Samuel Pepys, for one), but how exciting it is to have Kafka complete with an RSS feed!

In honor of Kafka's new blog, here are some links:

16 June 2005

Mid-June SF Site

The latest SF Site has been posted, and includes a review I wrote of the Gollancz re-issue of Geoff Ryman's novel Was. (Reading it over, I discovered that, once again, I employed my favorite Latinate word, quotidian, a word that seems to appear every time I write about realism.)

15 June 2005

Something More

In a quick post the other day, I mentioned the Dark Cabal and a particular criticism made about "the new generation" of writers in the SF field: that they should push themselves toward "something more" (beyond what the original post calls "literary-lite").

The more I think about it, the more I disagree with the particulars, while also finding it an interesting criticism. (I've commented in the past on most of the publications mentioned -- if you're curious: here, here, here.)

First off, everybody should remember that the writers discussed have been publishing for a pretty short amount of time. It's a rare writer whose earliest stories are the best, though they often give a glimpse of things to come. Nick Mamatas has written at least a couple of stories that are more significant and substantial than the one praised, and other writers such as Barth Anderson, Chris Barzak, and Alan DeNiro (to pick three Ratbastards from the beginning of the alphabet) have done some fine and substantial work recently. Kelly Link gets praised (deservedly), but she's not the only "next generation" writer out there who is doing unique, rich, innovative work -- Vandana Singh comes immediately to mind for me, because every story of hers I've read explores the implications of its material with a depth and sensitivity rare amongst even the better short story writers, never mind SF short story writers. Or M. Rickert -- as a work of fiction, her "Cold Fires" was vastly better than anything I read by any of the "big names" in the SF field last year.

The criticism is necessary, though, because it makes those of us who are particularly interested in "the next generation" or the territory between the definitions of science fiction, fantasy, and other genres point to what we value and why. The comments thread on the post has already delved into some of the topics with a kind of depth that is helpful for people who feel one way or another to begin to see how other people view things, and to see where they find value and pleasure.

It's interesting that the writer of the post is surprised that a lot of the small press publications are fantasy stories (the so-called "slipstream" stories of most of the writers are also fantasy, though somewhat less overt in their approach than, say, a David Eddings novel. But at this point contemporary fantasy is essentially indistinguishable from a lot of things being published in the literary mainstream, except that contemporary fantasy is what is published in magazines and books marketed as fantasy while fiction and literature are what is published in magazines and books marketed as fiction and literature -- the categories as arbiters of content have become meaningless, but remain powerful for marketing). The reasons seem perfectly clear to me, but I may be naive -- there are quite a few markets for core science fiction stories: Analog specializes in it, Asimov's tends to prefer it, SciFiction and F&SF are happy to publish it, and I know even the supposedly slipstreamy fiction editors at Strange Horizons would love to receive more pure science fiction submissions of good quality. Plus various other small magazines and e-zines, and a bunch of anthologies. If you write science fiction, you've got a pretty diverse group of markets to submit to. If, however, you're more interested in using fantasy as an element in stories rather than as the central conceit ... well, that's a somewhat different situation. There's long been a place for such writing within the SF world, but for a while there were, it seemed, more writers and stories than markets. (It's also worth noting that the Ratbastards were happy to publish the first five of David Moles's "Irrational Histories", which were structurally odd enough to, I assume, prevent publication in a major market, but he's just as capable of publishing a story like "The Third Party" in Asimov's and getting it into a Best of the Year collection.)

Here's another criticism that deserves a bit of response, though I expect it will cause me to use the phrase "on the other hand" a lot:
There are stories about the need for self-actualization, affirmations of the things we all believe. Most of these stories play at being strange, but underneath, a lot of them aren't very strange at all. Somehow they end up falling between literary and genre rather than, well, slipstreaming. They often felt like literary-lite. They had lovely images, competent writing.
First off, there is nothing that "we all believe". (Who do you mean "we" Dark Cabal Man?) I doubt the writer actually thinks there are things "we all believe", but it was a convenient generalization, the way that "we" often is, even though it's a ridiculous fiction when you begin to think about it (but "you" is, too). On the other hand, I know exactly what's meant here, and I agree in the abstract: I could probably live happily ever after if another serious story about somebody having an epiphany that makes them more content with their life was never published. Some great ones have been written, but it's time to move on and declare life a bit more complex. And even if life isn't that complex, fiction should be, because it's more interesting when it is. So there. But to call it "literary-lite" is unfair, because it's judging average fiction by the standards of great fiction, when really what you should do is compare anything you consider to be L-L to any issue of, say, TriQuarterly. Most of that stuff doesn't compare very well to Chekhov or Joyce, either. Or even to Alice Munro, who would be my nominee for best living short story writer in English (if such a category had any meaning or usefulness).

"Most of these stories play at being strange, but underneath, a lot of them aren't very strange at all." That's a strange statement. It can't stand on its own without some exploration, though -- I would love to see the writer, in a later post, really dig into a story and show how it appears strange but isn't, because I'm not entirely sure how that is possible, though I'm open to the idea. Or maybe that could even be the point of a story -- couldn't you say, for instance, that one of the powerful elements of the best SF writing is that it makes the strange ordinary? That it presents the impossible, the weird, the ridiculous, the dreamed, the wished-for, the imagined through techniques of realism? (The opposite is Shklovsky's idea of estrangement [or enstrangement], but that's another topic altogether...) Why is "playing" at being strange an invalid technique? Does it have more to do with assumptions the reader holds onto while reading than it does with anything actually on the page? On the other hand, I'm sure I'm not the only one who's finished a story, thought about it, and realized it was less substantial than it initially seemed. (But then, I feel this way about The Great Gatsby.)

"Somehow they end up falling between literary and genre rather than, well, slipstreaming." This is judging stories for being something they're not, and is a perfect example of the perils of labeling. It's taking Bruce Sterling's definition of "slipstream" and applying it to stories that may or may not have been intended by their authors to fit into that definition. It could be argued that the author's intentions don't matter, but to do so in this case is to say that Sterling's definition deserves to be applied as an evaluative tool against the stories, because if a story doesn't fit the goals of genre science fiction or fantasy, then the only thing it can be trying to do is what Sterling says slipstream does. This is taxonomy at its most reductive -- about as useful as saying if a farm animal doesn't give milk or lay eggs, it must be a sheep. To my knowledge, nobody at the Ratbastards, nobody at Flytrap, nobody at Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet said their goal was to publish "slipstream". Tim Pratt and Heather Shaw at Flytrap, for instance, say their 'zine is "like a wunderkammer", a "wonder cabinet" -- a collection of oddities and things that are interesting to look at.

I'm probably giving too much scrutiny to a post that was not designed to be looked at so closely. I'm glad the writer raised these ideas, even if I think they display some unsupportable assumptions. At the very least, it's good to see somebody paying some attention to small press writing and not just saying, "I like it, it's nice" after summarizing the plot of every story.

14 June 2005

Miyazaki Linkdump

I'm looking forward to seeing Howl's Moving Castle more than any other movie this year, and will, I hope, get down to Boston within the next week or two to do so, but until then, here are some links about the great Hayao Miyazaki:

13 June 2005

Threats and Cabals

Doug Lain recently reported that Night Shade Books publisher Jeremy Lassen got a visit from the Secret Service because of some photos he'd put on the web. Now Jeremy has told the story himself, and it's terrifying.

There's been discussion at Doug's site (e.g. this post) and elsewhere of whether it's justified for the Secret Service to investigate anything perceived as a threat to the President, no matter how remote or ridiculous that "threat" may seem. After all, isn't it their job description? Reading Jeremy's post put any temptation to buy into that argument to rest for me.

In less threatening news, there's now a real Dark Cabal, one devoted to discussing science fiction and fantasy. It's a group blog by anonymous writers, writers who appear to be professionals within the SF field. I expect some people will be upset by the anonymity, but I think, at least for a little while, it will be a good thing, because the writers here seem judicious and aren't using the pseudonyms as veils for cheap shots and character assassination. One of the influences they cite is the Cheap Truth newsletters of the 1980s, which helped proselytize for the various causes of the cyberpunks. I'm not sure if the Dark Cabal have goals quite as clear as those of the cyberpunks, but there's a hint of which way they might go at the end of a post about some of the newer writers in the field:
I'm tickled to death that people who can't find a commercial publisher are publishing themselves. I think this is the place where many of the brightest and the best of the next generation are polishing their craft. I find it interesting to note that Chris Rowe's fiction became more interesting, more powerful, more strange and new, when he added science fiction into the mix. I want to push a lot of these young writers--not towards sf per say [sic], but to something more. Do something with your fiction--narrator, science fiction, strangeness, unsettling truths, humor. Push a little harder.
This is a sentiment I sympathize with, and it certainly doesn't just apply to the writers discussed there, but to just about every writer alive, and could as easily be said about most of the stories nominated by the Hugo and Nebula awards this year as for the stories mentioned in that post.

12 June 2005


If you read nothing else online today, be sure to read Nick Mamatas's post on Bookshare, copyright, blindness, obligation vs. charity, etc. I thought about quoting some of it, particularly the remarks of Eric Flint, but that might mean you wouldn't click through to read the whole thing. Go now.

10 June 2005

The Indoctrination

We're concerned about the effort to capture youth through indoctrination into the homosexual lifestyle.

--Matthew D. Staver, Liberty Counsel, quoted in the New York Times

East of San Francisco the hills rise wild, and there are valleys with deep woods that no axe has ever cut. When I went into the hills and vales to survey for the new reservoir they told me the place was evil. They told me this in Orange County, a community where the health classes have always taught only abstinence, and so I thought it was just the age-old wisdom of my overprotective ancestors. I was no longer a young and rebellious man, but had maintained certain tendencies toward, I hesitate to say it now, liberalism, and I discounted the wisdom of the ages.

As I approached the hills, I felt gnawing at my vitals a dark terror that I had felt only once before, in early November 2004, when for a moment I had lost faith in our Supreme Commander, and thought that the forces of darkness would prevent him from retaining his throne in the capital. This terror had invigorated me then, and through it I triumphed against all that could have been lost, and tonight, the hills beckoning, I prayed to be reinvigorated again.

But close contact with the utterly bizarre is often more terrifying than inspiring, and it did not cheer me to think that, on this moonless night, I could be approaching some unspeakable horror rather than the simple reservoir my rational mind expected. As I reached the top of a hill and prepared my descent, I spied below me a queer pink light emanating from the darkness. I could not restrain myself, despite the terror that possessed me, from continuing on this path toward what could only be utter destruction.

What I found there between the hills I have no way to express. For a moment there swept over me a swamping wave of sickness and repulsion -- a freezing, petrifying sense of utter alienage and abnormality -- because from the moment the pink light engulfed me, I knew that I was in the possession of some damnable, utterly accursed focus of unknown and malign cosmic forces.

The feeling passed, though, and once I had made my way through the pink light, I discovered that I had, indeed, come to the reservoir, and that I was not the only person to stray from the safety of home that night. Around the glistening pool stood a crowd of men, and as I watched, they knelt down at the water and drank of it. Impelled by what force, I do not know, I joined them. As I bent to stretch my hands into the water, I was startled by the reflection undulating on the surface, for it was not the reflection I had seen in the mirror that morning when I performed my daily ablutions, but was, instead, the image of a younger self, a man whose face was filled with youthful radiance, whose life still waited for him to seize it and impregnate it with all the possibilities that age and time could offer.

I drank of the water, and then arose with a caution more impulsive than deliberate. I turned to look at the other men, and, wondrously, discovered my joy reflected in the joy of the creatures around me; I saw on their countenances the ageless energy I so cherished, and their eyes glowed with a gravitational power of attraction I had never encountered before. At last I felt able to act, and stretched myself vigorously to regain command of my muscles, and found I was in control of muscles I had before never allowed myself to dream existed.

At this point, as the crowd eased itself together in what seemed a replication of the unity of ancient things, a column of pink light flared suddenly amidst us and began to weave itself into fantastic suggestions of shape that I would not see again until I discovered, much later, an archive of periodicals in San Francisco owned by a doomed poet and librarian. Words are unable to convey the ecstatic fervor that pulsed through the men conjoined on the reservoir's moon-dusted shore.

At last the light went away and I discovered myself alone again. At length I crawled back through the hills and to my home, just as the sun began its mournful ascent. I hid alone in my bedroom for hours at a time, and refused to speak to my wife. The days that followed were a piece of delirium out of Wilde or Rimbaud or the paintings of Eakins, and when I finally burst from the house, it was to run through the stately, respectable streets like a wild animal, hungry, engorged with malevolence against all that was good.

Through the ministrations of generous men and women, I slowly recovered my senses over the course of that long and horrible year. Eventually, I came to be able to bear the sight and touch of my wife. We returned to our roles as upstanding members of our church, and I, finding myself unable even on my strongest days to think of civil engineering, trained to be a stockbroker with my father's firm.

Every day, though, I see in the faces of men around me the longing that led me to the reservoir that night, and every day I shudder at the thought that one of them could have been sent to further my indoctrination. I turn away from their stares, I do not return their kind words, and I petition people in power to recognize the grotesque threat among us.

It has come to nothing but indifference, and I fear that I am one of the last among the sane. Numbers went queer in the years after I visited the reservoir, and always they lacked the power to get away. Then the stronger-minded folk all left the county, and only the foreigners would buy their homes. No traveller has ever escaped a sense of strangeness in those deep vales, and artists shiver as they paint the hills whose mystery is as much of the spirit as of the eye. I remain, with only my memories of that fabulous, formless night to remind of what forces have possessed the world, and what dangers still consume us. I remember the last man I loved, and hate to think of him as the grey, twisted, brittle monstrosity which persists more and more in troubling my sleep.

08 June 2005

Online "Music Lessons"

One of my favorite stories from last year, and a finalist for the Fountain Award, is now online for a limited time: "Music Lessons" by Douglas Lain. The melding of form and content is thoughtful and unusual, and I find the story to be haunting.

In Praise of Long Sentences

I've just begun reading Lucius Shepard's short novel Viator, and even though I'm only 35 pages in, it has already worked its way close to my heart by being constructed primarily (so far) of long, luxurious sentences, sentences that bloom with modifiers and clauses and details, sentences that are seldom awkward, because even though Shepard's prose has often been impressive since he first came to prominence in the early 1980s, his skill with language is now so polished and apparently effortless that sentences that feel remarkable on a first reading become even more astonishing when experienced a second or third time, and the cumulative effect of such stylistic high-wire acts being repeated page after page is to create a richness and density that many stories don't have at twice (or more) the length.

Of course you'd like an example. Here, then, is the first paragraph of the book:
Wilander had grown accustomed to his cabin aboard Viator. Small and unadorned, it suited him, partly because his aspirations were equally small and unadorned, but also beause it resonated with dreams of a romantic destiny, of extraordinary adventures in distant lands, that had died in him years before, yet seemed to have been technically fulfilled now he was quartered aboard a freighter whose captain had steered her into the shore at so great a speed, she had ridden up onto the land, almost her entire length embedded among firs and laurel and such, so that when you rounded the headland (as Wilander himself had done the previous month, standing at the bow of a tug that brought mail and supplies to that section of the Alaskan coast, big-knuckled hands gripping the rail and long legs braced, the wind whipping his pale blond hair back from his bony, lugubrious face, the pose of an explorer peering anxiously toward a mysterious smudge on the horizon), all you saw of Viator was the black speck of her stern, circular at that distance, like a period set between beautiful dark-green sentences.
(Actually, I think there's a slight problem of parallelism with big-knuckled hands gripping, the wind whipping, and the pose of an explorer peering [the hands grip, the wind whips, but the pose doesn't peer], but it could perhaps somehow be argued that it only looks like parallelism, and isn't, really, so the fault is no fault. I still like the paragraph, regardless.)

A friend of mine sometimes speaks wistfully of "lovely 18th century sentences", the sorts of things written by writers who intended to do with writing what could not be done with speech, and sought therefore to take advantage of writing's inherent, unique qualities -- the sentence as its own art. She is a devoted fan of Joseph Williams's various books, such as Style: Toward Clarity and Grace (which has an entire chapter on length), and shortly after we had met she said to me, "You must use more summative and resumptive modifiers. It's only civilized." Williams's advice tends to be aimed at technical and business writers, but his attention to the minute details of style is helpful, even if it sometimes causes his own style to be occasionally less than graceful. I do like the first paragraph of his "Length" chapter:
The ability to write clear, crisp sentences that never go beyond twenty words is a considerable achievement. You'll never confuse a reader with sprawl, wordiness, or muddy abstraction. But if you never write sentences longer than twenty words, you'll be like a pianist who uses only the middle octave: you can carry the tune, but without much variety or range. Every competent writer has to know how to write a concise sentence and how to prune a long one to readable length. But a competent writer must also know how to manage a long sentence gracefully, how to make it as clear and as vigorous as a series of short ones.
I like, too, a quotation from Gertrude Stein he begins the chapter with: "A long complicated sentence should force itself upon you, make you know yourself knowing it."

Reading Viator, I've found myself having to reread whole pages because I let myself get lost in the sound of a long sentence and forget to pay attention to the information it conveys. Some readers, I'm sure, find such an effect annoying, but for me it increases the pleasure of the book -- any putz off the street can tell a story; it's how the story is told that matters most, and that includes the sentences. Long sentences aren't appropriate to every sort of story (for instance, I just finished Shepard's Floater, where the sentences and pacing are generally more hardboiled), but it's nice to read a writer who has the skill to know when and how to employ them, and doesn't just do so for the now-cliched reason of stream-of-consciousness*.

*It's especially cliched when the sentences roll along without adequate punctuation. Faulkner did it brilliantly in his best novels, though later it seemed to become a mannerism. Joyce of course had the Molly Bloom soliloquy. Etc. etc. It can still be an effective technique, but not when used by default because the writer couldn't be bothered to think of another approach.

06 June 2005

The New Old

At the time I wrote my current Strange Horizons column, the whole InfernoKrusher movement was still formulating itself. Between the time of writing and the time of publication, they have succeeded in krushing the basic premise of the column -- that there haven't been any new SF movements this year.

Oh well. At least the movements I propose in the column are serious.

Or you can just skip the column and read all the other fun things in the current issue.

05 June 2005

The Dreaded Book Meme

I thought I might escape this one, but Amrit at Writing Cave tagged me, so here we go...

The Number of Books I Own
If I could do that kind of math, I wouldn't be an English teacher. 3,000 maybe? 4,000? A lot. Too many. I haven't done a major culling for a while. It wasn't until very recently that I could afford to buy many new books, but for many years I suffered a kind of disease where I thought if a book were at a library sale or used bookstore or had been remaindered, then it would DIE if I didn't save it. Much as I feel a bit weighted down by them all, I love looking at them, paging through them, and even reading them now and then. They're a kind of fragmented autobiography. Just within sight at the moment are a copy of The Jungle from my high school American history class, The Clown by Heinrich Boll from a college class in German culture, a Spanish dictionary that was my constant companion in Nicaragua and Mexico, and various Best American Short Stories from the 1990s that I found at The Strand for $1 each years ago when I desperately wanted to write the kinds of stories that would have been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories in the 1990s.

The Book I'm Currently Reading
I'm never reading just one. I finished Beasts by John Crowley tonight and am reading around in Nice Big American Baby by Judy Budnitz, Gunning for the Buddha by Michael Jasper, Our Napoleon in Rags by Kirby Gann, An Archeologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks, Lint by Steve Aylett, and John Brown, Abolitionist by David S. Reynolds. I'm planning on reviewing Gunning for the Buddha and Our Napoleon in Rags if I end up liking them, so I'm almost certain to finish those ... the others I'll finish if I happen not to be distracted by other things. (Lint I'm finding to be a one-punchline joke extended over a lot of pages, so probably won't finish that, actually, although it's an amusing enough joke that I might.) I expect to start reading Lucius Shepard's Floater and Viator within the next couple days.

Last Book I Bought
I'm about to start a year-long sabbatical from teaching and go to graduate school, so suddenly I have no disposable income, and haven't bought any books recently. I think the most recent purchase was a copy of Jeff Ford's The Physiognomy, because I'm interviewing him soon and haven't yet read his early books.

Last Book I Read
Gave that away above: Beasts by Crowley. While reading it, I thought I might write an essay of some sort about it and Kate Wilhelm's Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, but I don't think I'm going to. Nonetheless, I found Beasts oddly provocative.

Five Books That Have Meant A Lot To Me
Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown -- the sentence "Goodnight mush" is, I think, one of the greatest ever written in English. It still makes me smile to think of it, and yet also retains a weird sadness.

Declarations of Independence by Howard Zinn -- read at an impressionable time, it changed how I thought about politics, history, and compassion.

Chekhov: Four Major Plays translated by Carol Rocamora -- favorite translations of the plays I know and love best.

Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner -- the novel I find simultaneously most engrossing and beguiling

Breathturn by Paul Celan, translated by Pierre Joris -- the most visceral experience of reading a book of poetry I've had, and continue to have

As for choosing somebody else ... well, consider yourself chosen.

03 June 2005


In response to the Notes Toward an Infernokrusher Manifesto, Alan DeNiro has, quite rightly, invoked the Vorticist movement and Wyndham Lewis's journal Blast.

We shouldn't forget that there was a Blast! before [update: actually, shortly after] Lewis's Blast -- one edited from 1916-1917 by Alexander Berkman, complete with its own manifesto:
Too long have we been patient under the work of brutality and degradation. Too long have we conformed to the Dominant, with an ineffective fist hidden in our pocket. Too long have we vented our depth of misery by endless discussion of the distant future. Too long have we been exhausting our efforts and energy by splitting hairs with each other.

It's time to act. The time is NOW.

The breath of discontent is heavy upon this wide land. It permeates mill and mine, feild and factory. Blind rebellion stalks upon highway and byway. To fire it with the spark of Hope. To kindle it with the light of Vision. And turn pale discontent into conscious social action -- that is the crying problem of the hour. It is the great work to be done.

To work, then, and blasted be every obstacle in the way of Regeneration.
(AK Press will be publishing all the issues of the Berkman Blast! in a book soon.)

Hal Duncan has offered an infernokrushing blast at competitive movements. Grrrrr!

All this time I was thinking my next car would be one of those cute little hybrids ... but now ... I feel it ... the desire for ... a MONSTER TRUCK!!! Bwahahahahahahaha! We're krushing you! Krushing! KRUSHING!

Um. Sorry. [Cough.]

(Are we just watching the repressed aggression of people who were bullied in elementary school, or is something else going on here?)

Bookmark Now

I started reading Bookmark Now, a collection of essays edited by Kevin Smokler, during a meeting this week, because it was the only book I had with me and the meeting was tedious. I ended up reading the whole thing over the course of a couple of days, even when I was just sitting at home and could have read something else.

The subtitle of Bookmark Now is "Writing in Unreaderly Times", which is a far more pessimistic view than most of the essays in the book offer. What it really is is a collection of pieces by writers, most of them in the twenties or thirties, about being a writer or a reader. Some of the essays are fluff, and some of the writers seem to think that publishing a book or a story or a blog entry has given them The Right To Be Profund, but for the most part these are engaging, diverse perspectives and stories. I particularly liked Kelley Eskridge and Nicola Griffith's reflections on living and writing together, Paul Collins's chronicle of spending a year reading old issues of Notes & Queries, Stephanie Elizondo Griest's thoughts on identity and history, and K.M. Soehnlein's consideration of the current state of gay fiction. (A full list of contributors is available at the website for the book.)

It was a good way to get through a boring meeting (hidden, of course, behind Important Papers), and a pleasant diversion from a bunch of other things I really should be reading...

02 June 2005

Failbetter Five Years Later

The current issue of Failbetter.com is the seventeeth and celebrates the online magazine's fifth year of publication. There are stories by Steve Almond, Jim Shepard, Greg Ames, and Matthew Derby, poetry by Terrance Hayes, Jonah Winter, Amy Holman, Mary Donnelly, Lee Upton, John Rybicki, paintings by Doug Malone, an interview with Sam Lipsyte, and a retrospective editorial by Thom Didato, who co-founded the magazine with David McLendon. The magazine has come a long way since the first issue, but the quality has been high since the beginning.

I met Thom at a writer's conference during the summer of 2000, and at the time thought online fiction was junk (not that I'd read much), and assumed that such a magazine was destined to be the last refuge of the most desperate. Then I read an issue, and, though it didn't blow my head off or anything, the quality was higher than I would have expected. And any magazine that takes its name from a Beckett quote has a warm spot in my heart. So I submitted a story of my own, and it was rejected. I submitted another, with the same result -- and got one of my favorite rejections of all time: "Matt, it's not that your stories are bad. It's just that they're kind of like broccoli. I know they're good for me, but I don't enjoy them." A third try succeeded, and even though the story now seems to me to be little more than a pastiche of George Saunders, I'm fond of it, because it wasn't broccoli.

After I published with them, Failbetter got stronger and stronger. Thom took over as primary editor, scored one interview after another with writers who would within weeks or months suddenly become even more famous than they were when interviewed (he interviewed both Michael Chabon and Richard Russo right before each won their Pulitzer), and the fiction and poetry garnered attention from all over the place, and a readership larger than almost any treeware literary journal could claim. The good folks behind the scenes at Failbetter deserve many thanks and congratulations for five great years, and, I hope, at least five more to come.