28 September 2005

MirrorMask: The Contest

The winner of the first part of this contest, which was to create it, is Niko. [So Niko, email me your mailing address and tell me which prize you want.] All of the entries were good, though there weren't many of them. I decided to go with the idea of writing something, because posting photos can be a pain. (But if anybody does feel like promoting the movie and taking a photo of themselves doing that promotion, I'm sure the publicity people would be appreciative, and I might be able to hook you up with a prize of some sort. No promises, but I'll do what I can.)

Here's the contest: Write an Onion-style headline involving MirrorMask. (Note that The Onion this week has an interview with Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean.)

Guidelines: Be amusing. The only entries that will be considered are ones that are entered into the comments to this post. The winner will get first choice of whatever prizes are left over once Niko chooses hers, second place gets next choice, etc., until there are no prizes left. The prizes are MirrorMask movie posters, action figures, and a bust of some sort. I'll be the judge, and the criteria will be simple: whichever headlines most amuse me will win.

And please tell everybody you know to go see the film if they can (it opens on Friday, September 30th in selected theatres in the U.S.). The entire goal is to get enough people to go see it that the distributors decide to send copies to theatres in central New Hampshire and I'll get to see it on the big screen. (Yes, this is all about keeping me happy. Why else have a blog?)

Deadline: Monday, October 3, by 8pm E.S.T.

26 September 2005


Beyond lies not just the wub, but the following:

Contesting MirrorMask

There are many things I'm not good at, and one of them is coming up with contests. But the good people promoting the new Dave McKean/Neil Gaiman film MirrorMask have offered me some items associated with the film to give away however I want. Thus, I need a fun Mirrormask-themed contest. I don't usually do promo things, but I have a very selfish reason for doing this: MirrorMask is not likely to make it to anywhere where I'll have a chance to see it unless it becomes really popular, and because I love Dave McKean's artwork I want to see it on a big screen, not just the little screen I'll watch it on when the DVD comes out. So anything that might help cause people to go see the movie and get it into more theatres is okay by me.

So here's the deal: In the next two days, the person who comes up with what I think is the cleverest and most interesting contest to use to give the items away will get first pick of them. Please post your ideas in the comments for this post. This first part of the contest will end, and comments be closed, on Wednesday, September 28 sometime around 8pm. All decisions are mine, final, utterly subjective, perhaps unfair, etc. etc. etc.

The winner will get to choose among the following: a movie poster, collectible action figure, or a figure bust.

25 September 2005

Idiot Wind

David Greenberg's essay in Slate about "'60s nostalgia" in the new Martin Scorsese documentary on Bob Dylan (showing on PBS and the BBC, and available on DVD) seems to me to be the sort of thing somebody writes who feels a need to be contrarian, but doesn't really have anything good to be contrary about, and so misses the point entirely.

This is not to suggest that the U.S. is not steeped in nostalgia for the '60s. But Greenberg's awareness of this tendency makes him see it everywhere, and so he utterly misperceives the film, which looks at the years when Bob Dylan was first the adored icon of the folk song armies and then the hated apostate. Because Greenberg wants everybody to grind his axe, he misses what is so marvelous about Nowhere at Home: the film spends most of its 200+ minutes on five years in Dylan's life. This focus gives the film a depth that most biographical movies don't have, and helps it avoid the trap so many fall into of trying to cover too much in too short a time, reducing the characters to poses. Scorsese's movie is a character study, and the story it tells is a compelling one: the story of a kid who became an icon, and then wanted to be an iconoclast. It's the story of groups that tried to define him and grew sick with anger and confusion when he refused to live up to the definitions. Sure, Dylan created some great work as he got older (and plenty of drivel), but the drama lies in his early years, when the tension between his desire for independence and his fans' desire for something predictable was strongest.

Nowhere at Home is a damn fine film, though it may not be perfect as a biography -- as a more thoughtful Slate article, by David Yaffe, suggests, it's a bit of a whitewash. But there's a lot between the frames, and much of what the film best conveys it conveys through suggestion -- the editing is subtle, sometimes clever, and often surprising. Why expect this documentary to demand as little from viewers as the average "Behind the Music" episode?

21 September 2005

Thoreaus for the Day

It is an agreeable surprise to find in the midst of a swamp so large and edible a fruit as an apple.

(21 September 1852)

The poet must keep himself unstained and aloof. Let him perambulate the bounds of imagination's provinces, the realms of faery, and not the insignificant boundaries of towns. The excursions of the imagination are so boundless, the limits of towns are so petty.

(20 September 1851)

--Henry David Thoreau

20 September 2005


Jonathan Lethem has won a MacArthur Fellowship, generally known as the "genius award". He's not the first person to win who has published in science fiction magazines (Octavia Butler won in 1995), but it's certainly a rare event, and quite an honor. It's also a lot of money: as the press release says, "$500,000 -- out of the blue -- no strings attached".

I'm glad Lethem was chosen, and certainly am excited for him, but this choice continues the unfortunate trend of the MacArthur award often going to writers who have already found a lot of success. Imagine, for instance, how much it would have changed Lethem's life to get this award not right now, when his books sell well, but ten (or even five) years ago, when the $500,000 would have done exactly what it is supposed to do: free the recipient from financial considerations that limit their ability to experiment. The Whiting Foundation does this relatively well, and the MacArthur could become more than a certificate of success for writers who have already achieved it if more of their choices were bolder. Consider the criteria for the fellowships:
(1) Fellows must be exceptionally creative individuals; (2) Fellows must show significant promise for important future advances based on a track record of accomplishment; and (3) fellowships must be able to relieve constraints that prevent the recipients from freely working on their most innovative projects, to do what might not be done otherwise.
It may be that the "track record of accomplishment" is the limiting factor here, because the judges often like writers who have won a few other awards, but the third criterion is not being put to its best use when the award goes to writers whose work commands a large audience, good advances and royalties, movie options, etc. (Butler is among the writers who are an exception to this. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer published an interesting profile of her that explored the benefits and consequences -- not entirely positive -- of the award for her.)

What would happen if all of the MacArthur Fellows who think, "You know, I really don't need this money to do what I do," put some of their award money together in a foundation of their own, and gave The MacArthur Geniuses' Genius Award to people they thought were both deserving of the recognition, and in need of the money? That way they could keep their own recognition, and use the money to do what it was supposed to do in the first place: help the Jonathan Lethems of the world who are struggling in their careers, and who might give in to the temptation to sacrifice the next great novel to a stable job or a movie tie-in book.

(I realize what I've said here may make it seem like I'm not celebrating Jonathan Lethem's award enough, and that's not my intent. It's a tremendous honor, and his career deserves to be honored. My frustration is not with him, but with the MacArthur Foundation, which often sacrifices its potential by giving awards to writers who have already achieved tremendous success.)

19 September 2005

Blog Like a Pirate

Shiver me timbers, I nearly forgot that today is International Talk Like a Pirate Day! (And, oddly enough, I reread Treasure Island this weekend. Hadn't read it since I was about 8, and enjoyed it much more now than I did then, when I thought the book was a sluggish version of the movie.)

In honor of today, you can read this entire site as translated into PirateSpeak thanks to the Pirate Translator. Or you can walk another site of your choice off the plank! Arrrrggh!

Here be some guides to treasure:Well, that's enough of that. Back to yer stations, ye mutinous swine!

Over There

Nothing to see here. Keep moving. If you need a destination:

15 September 2005

Oh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet

Describing Lydia Millet's new novel, Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, is quite a challenge, and since I just finished reading it moments ago, I'm tempted to do all sorts of bad reviewerly things like compare it to various other writers ("It's Matt Ruff meets Pynchon in a bar with Sven Lindqvist and--") or use empty words like brilliant and stunning and tour de force. (Except I've got a few reservations about the last third or so. Minor ones.)

I do plan on writing at length about it, but it's a meaty book and deserves some careful thought. For now, let me just say that it's the story of what happens when J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, and Enrico Fermi are suddenly and inexplicably transported from July 16, 1945 to the beginning of the twenty-first century (without their old selves being wiped out -- they are, for instance, able to read biographies of themselves and discover what they did after 1945). It begins as a kind of domestic comedy-drama revolving around the life of the woman who first discovers the scientists and then takes them in to live with her and her (reluctant and skeptical) husband. Soon, though, the book becomes a picaresque satire of politics and religion, with the scientists traveling to Hiroshima and the Marshall Islands, then from Nevada to Washington, D.C., accumulating a following of New Agers, ex-Deadheads, and religious fundamentalists, until the fundamentalists take over and the book becomes a sort of conspiratorial thriller, then ends as a transcendental meditation. All the while, the story is interspersed with reminders that though it may be a great lark, there is a disturbing reality beneath the fantasies -- every few pages, we get passages such as the following:
It has been estimated that fallout from American atmospheric testing between 1945 and 1963 has caused or will cause fatal cancers in between seventy thousand and eight hundred thousand people in the U.S. and around the world. Soviet testing likely has yielded a similar number.
Thus, behind all the amusement is the nagging presence of mass death. It is as if Millet has decided to revel in many of the ridiculous elements of American culture while also reminding us of what that ridiculousness hides.

Remarkably, though, the book did not seem shrill to me -- the characters, even when they are caricatures, are so well drawn, their situations so often complex, that it becomes impossible to reduce any of the events in the book to a slogan. The dialogue is extremely skillful, Millet's eye for detail is among the best I've encountered in a contemporary writer, and few of the scenes ever feel sentimental or forced.

Here are some links to other information about the book and the author:

Autumn Pick from the LitBlog Co-op

We have now announced the autumn Read This selection for the LitBlog Co-op, and will begin various sorts of posts about it and the four other nominees over the next weeks and months.

I became a member of the group too late to vote last time, so was sort of on the sidelines, but this time around I was not just a voter, but also a nominator, and the book I nominated will be revealed on Monday. I'm not at all averse to the book that was selected, though -- it was, in fact, my second choice, behind my own book.

The LBC is still new, and we're still figuring out ways to make it interesting and worthwhile, so we've changed a lot of what we're doing this round from last round. We're working on scheduling lots of special posts about the selected book, with, we hope, discussions with the author, editor, agent, publicist, and anybody else who is willing to join in, and we're also going to devote a week of discussion to each of the nominated books, which is something I'm pretty excited about, because some of the books are from very small presses, and the extended discussion will give them some deserved attention. (Which is not to say that everyone liked every book. Each book had supporters and detractors. There were two books that I was ... well, less than enthusiastic about.)

So go read about the autumn pick. Powell's Books will be selling it for 30% off, and I recommend picking up a copy, because if you like the sorts of things I write about here at The Mumpsimus, you'll probably like this book quite a bit.

14 September 2005

Give Me Some Melody!

In the Stephen Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along, there's a song toward the end in which a trio of young composers and lyricists try to get an agent for the show they've written. The agent is underwhelmed by their experimentation, their breaking away from the norms of what is expected in a Broadway musical:
Why can't you throw 'em a crumb?
What's wrong with letting them tap their toes a bit?
I'll let you know when Stravinsky has a hit--
Give me some melody!
Well, Hal Duncan, who is no stranger to gardes that are at least moderately avant, has now written lyrics to a song that most certainly needs to be given a melody:
There's tall men and short men,
And average height.
There's fat men and skinny,
There's black and there's white.
There's red, brown and yellow,
Broad-shouldered and slight.
And all in this garden of earthly deliiiiight...
It gets fabulously raunchier from there.

13 September 2005

Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee

I had been awaiting J.M. Coetzee's new novel, Slow Man, with both excitement and dread. It is his first novel to be published since he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003 (his previous book, Elizabeth Costello, came out just before the announcement, if I remember correctly), and oftentimes the books that Nobel winners publish after they have been enlaureated are, well, feeble.

Slow Man is not feeble, and it is likely to find mildly passionate admirers and fiercely passionate detractors -- in fact, among reviewers, it already has done so, as shown by the roundup of reviews at The Complete Review. Coetzee has often been controversial, and even his best novels -- which I would say are Waiting for the Barbarians, Life and Times of Michael K, and Disgrace -- have been seen by some readers as awkward, excessively abstract, schematic, racist, sexist, too political, not political enough, etc. Slow Man will not win over anyone who has disliked Coetzee's work previously, and it's also likely to annoy plenty of people who did admire the best of his earlier novels.

I should not have dreaded that the book would be an ordinary disappointment, however, because Coetzee is too stubborn and singular a writer to do anything that is not somehow surprising and odd. This is after all, the man who delivered perhaps the strangest Nobel lecture in the history of the award, and who shunned as much of the publicity around it as possible (he gave only two print interviews when in Sweden -- and one of them was to Djurens Ratt [Animal Rights].)

Slow Man is, indeed, surprising and odd. It is not nearly as odd as Elizabeth Costello, but it does seem to follow directly from that book, and not merely because the character of Elizabeth Costello herself appears a third of the way in and refuses to go away. Where previously the character of Elizabeth Costello seemed to be struggling with the usefulness of being a writer, now the novel itself embodies that struggle. Up to page 79, when Costello appears, Slow Man is a compelling Coetzee story, similar in many ways to Disgrace. The main character, a 60-year-old photographer named Paul Rayment, is in a bicycle accident, his leg is amputated in the hospital, he refuses to use a prosthesis (throughout the book he stubbornly resists anything he considers fake or artificial), he goes through a couple of annoying or incompetent nurses at home, until finally he gains an excellent nurse and falls in love with her (though not she with him). This nurse, Marijana Jokic, is Croatian. Aha! we think, Coetzee is once again writing about power and brutality! Croatia, how suggestive! Domestic totalitarianism, immigration and alienation, class, paralysis -- oh, the possibilities! The description of the accident and Paul's reaction to it is vivid, sharp, and discomforting; with Paul's adjustment to life at home, he begins to seem to be the sort of flawed, pitiful, stubborn character that David was in Disgrace. Coetzee, though, might as well quote Prufrock at this point: "That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all."

Because here the novel that any aware reader is expecting ends. Elizabeth Costello comes in and hints to Paul Rayment that he is a character she has dreamed up, and that he is allowing his story to become dull. They spend the rest of the book arguing with each other, provoking each other, abandoning each other. Costello can never seem to come to grips with the world she is a part of, and that she wants to escape from. Paul begins to adapt to his world, for better or worse, but also brings plenty of humiliations upon himself. He misreads many of his circumstances, just as Costello seems to misimagine them. The one sensation that stayed with me throughout the book was of loneliness, and the desperate, painful fight against it when it seems to be your fate. Neither writing nor life can assuage the pain of dying alone; and yet, isn't that everyone's lot?

Images and vocabulary of religion fill the book -- at first, Costello seems to be a kind of author-god, an omniscient character, someone with knowledge and control. She comes to seem, though, more and more limited, more and more human, as if she is her own Nietzsche. Characters try to find meaning in life and death, they cling to whatever faith they can. They cling to memories, to stories, to whatever they can grasp onto as somehow being real and authentic.

It's interesting to look at the reviews and see how the first readers of the book have approached it, because it's not the sort of novel that can be absorbed quickly and then tossed aside. Faced with such a book, reviewers often fall back on their favorite tricks: summaries of the plot and facile biographical guesses about how the book is a reflection of the author's own life.

The Village Voice has a review that is pretty worthless as criticism (it's a shallow biographical reading of the book -- the last paragraphs reading to me like a parody of the whole genre), though I did chuckle at the description the writer offers of Coetzee's early novels:
Each of these books imagines the dissolution of power in a plainly colonial but nevertheless ahistorical setting. Were it not for the absence of spaceships and tentacled extraterrestrials, these novels, with their highly specialized circumstances, might even be called science fiction.
The review in The Age, by Kerryn Goldsworthy, is a good attempt, but the last paragraph is revealing:
Novels like this are a reviewer's nightmare. You know before you start that no description or summary will be adequate, and superlatives seem both impertinent and unnecessary.
To read the reviews so far, this seems to be true. I've only found two reviews that are satisfyingly thoughtful: one is negative, one positive about the book. The Complete Review's own review (scroll down) is a fine exploration of how Slow Man suggests ideas of creation and connection, and it's really a model of what a review can accomplish in a short space. (I'd excerpt it, but I think it works best as a whole.)

Benjamin Markovits's review for The New Statesman is quite negative about the book, but is nonetheless thoughtful and perceptive. For instance:
Few books have time to say how being hopeless feels. Slow Man is no exception; but Elizabeth's interference is an attempt, at least, to make an issue of that failure. Novelists depend on plots; plots depend on actions. People, however, rarely act out their frustrations in linear progression. A realist will find it difficult to give narrative shape to misery: none of the books, after all, "have time", literally. It's the being stuck in time that is so hard for fiction to capture, and so important to the feeling of hopelessness. By introducing the novelist to the story, Coetzee can discuss the shortcomings in his account of a man trapped in a body and life that no longer give him pleasure.

Still, I'm not sure that Coetzee's experiment with Elizabeth is worth the obvious absurdities into which it forces him.
I think Markovits is trying to make the novel fit into a template the book itself works against -- that of the conventional novel of psychological realism -- but he admits his approach is open to contradictions, and he clearly shows that he spent time and thought on what Coetzee wrote, which is more than can be said for many of the positive reviews, plenty of which could have been written without the reviewer having read anything more than the press release that accompanied the book. In fact, the front flap of the dustjacket, which seems to be trying to convince us that this is an Important Book, offers more to think about than most of the reviews do:
Paul Rayment's accident changes his perspective on life, and as a result he begins to address the kinds of universal concerns that define us all: What does it mean to do good? What in our lives is ultimately meaningful? Is it more important to be loved or to be cared for? How do we define the place we call "home"?
Slow Man is certainly not Coetzee's best work, and it's frustrating at times, but it is seldom less than compelling, seldom less than intelligent, even as it is beguiling.

World Fantasy Convention

I'm sending my registration for the World Fantasy Convention out today, so I will be attending, in case anyone was still wondering. If anybody needs a room, email me to let me know, as I have one at the Doubletree reserved and would be quite happy to be able to split the cost...

The rumors that I am both moderator for and the only participant in a panel on self-indulgence are entirely false.

12 September 2005

"Anyway" by M. Rickert

M. Rickert's "Cold Fires", published last year, was a story that astounded me with its complex structure, its imagery, and its enigmas. It's dangerous, though, to hope for a writer to repeat their previous success, because repetition usually leads to dilution; and yet it's difficult not to compare other work to the touchstone and find it lacking.

Thus, when I read the two Rickert stories Fantasy & Science Fiction published this year, "The Harrowing" and "A Very Little Madness Goes a Long Way" (in the April and August issues, respectively), I knew they were well written, intelligent, strange, and even lovely ... but no matter how I thought about them, no matter how much I tried to appreciate them for what they were on their own, with their own purposes and pleasures, they just weren't "Cold Fires".

Now comes the third Rickert story of the year, this one published at SciFiction, "Anyway", and I'm beginning to be able to appreciate Rickert stories on their own again, without letting them shrivel in the shadow of their predecessor. I still don't think any of these stories are as impressive as "Cold Fires", but I also don't think they have to be. In fact, taken together as a trilogy, they have many elements that are as remarkable as any in the earlier tale.

Reading "Anyway" was, for me, a lesson in trusting a talented and individual writer. Two thirds of the way through, I thought, Oh no. It seemed the story was going to be about redemption and peace and love, all good things, I suppose, but they're the sorts of ideas that tend to turn even very good writers into the literary equivalent of maudlin old hippies after one too many trips to the Land of Bong. This is, after all, a tale that begins with the question, "What if you could save the world?" and goes on to be about a woman who thinks that she might have inherited that very power. To do so, she thinks, as her mother seemed to think before her, that she must allow her son to be killed in a war.

The first Rickert story I wrote about was "Many Voices", and a few things I said then apply just as well to both "Anyway" and "A Very Little Madness Goes a Long Way": assuming the main character is entirely reliable leads to a simplistic interpretation of the story that seems entirely unjustified by the gaps and odd moments -- but to do the opposite and assume that the strange events of the story are simply a metaphor for madness is not particularly satisfying either, because it makes the story into nothing more than a metaphorical mirror for a state of mind, which undermines all the events and plays a trick on the reader, turning the narrative into a glorified it-was-all-a-dream story. The beauty of these stories reveals itself in the way they show the emotional lives of the characters and render it impossible for the reader to settle on any one construction of reality, whether ordinary or fantastic.

The emotional core of "Anyway" lies in the narrator's feelings of dread, her anxiety about not being able to ensure the safety and sanity of the people she loves. It is irrelevant whether she truly can save the world by sacrificing her son: she grasps this idea because it might be enough to let her believe that whatever fate he encounters will have meaning. Her mother, whose memory is lost to Alzheimers, still cherishes the thought that she could have given her own son's death meaning if she had not been selfish; instead, "he went and got killed anyway".

For me, "Anyway" reads better as a non-fantastic story than "Many Voices" did, but there's still something I like about leaving the possibility open that the narrator does, indeed, possess the power she thinks she does. It gives her a kind of nobility she wouldn't have otherwise, even if it makes the story itself somewhat corny (which the non-fantastic interpretation avoids). Ultimately, "Anyway" is not so much a fantasy as a story about fantasy, a story that only gains resonance and mystery by being published by a genre publisher, because the effect of the story is more powerful if you go into it thinking that what you are reading is a work of fantasy or science fiction: you begin by believing the narrator instead of doubting her, and that seems like the right way to begin.

Before abandoning the tale to whatever fate each reader brings to it, I thought it might be worth noting how well Rickert's three stories published this year (so far) work together. Writers can't help but repeat themes, images, and types of characters -- personal interests are what help a writer animate their material -- and I have no idea if the connections between these stories are coincidental; it doesn't, actually, seem to be an important question, because the fact is that they echo each other beautifully.

For instance, "The Harrowing" involves a boy "traveling across the country for some time, trying to find [himself] in America", and he mentions Allen Ginsberg and Herman Hesse as inspirations and guides. The dead son in "Anyway", the narrator's brother, went on a "Kerouac-inspired road trip from which he never returned". "The Harrowing" is about spirituality, demons, and the presence of evil -- of evil being versus evil action; "A Very Little Madness" is about angels and demons, about rising above pure evil after it wipes out the (or a) world. All three stories include dead children: the boy who burns with the priest in "The Harrowing", the lost daughter in "A Very Little Madness", the lost son/brother in "Anyway". "The Harrowing" shows us two narrators telling the tales of their younger, more innocent days; "Anyway" gives us a narrator trapped between the dementia of her aged mother and the innocence of her own son. "A Very Little Madness" and "Anyway" can be read as the stories of how emotional stress bends realities and alters perceptions.

These are stories of trauma and loss, and of people trying to gain some control over a world of unfathomable chaos, to find comfort however they can. And yet these are not depressing stories -- there is a kind of redemption hiding between their lines, a kind of hope, a faith in the power of time to mend the past, even if the mending is that of what any reliable observer would call madness. Reliable observers aren't always the ones you should seek comfort from in times of pain or terror, anyway.

The End of Sontag & Kael: Lost in Space

Strange Horizons has posted my column about Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, and Craig Seligman's book about them, so I can now stop trying to find blog-sized bits of their wisdom (or idiocy) to present to you as the weblog equivalent of the sort of extras you might find on one of those DVDs in the remainders-of-the-remainders bin at the back of the store.

I'm sure there will be plenty of Strange Horizons readers who now think the magazine has pushed the limits of genre-boundaries as far as possible, now that I'm writing columns that have apparently nothing to do with science fiction or fantasy. (Blame me, not the editors. They told me I could write about whatever I felt like.) Perhaps, then, it's appropriate to end with some amusing, insightful, odd, incomplete, generalized, perplexing, and provocative comments they made about science fiction:

Pauline Kael on Close Encounters of the Third Kind (collected in When the Lights Go Down and For Keeps):
There are, of course, limitations to science-fiction movies. People used to love to be frightened by ghost stories -- those evil portents of a world beyond death, with their intimations of haunted, macabre sex. Those stories belonged to an age when people lived in fear of their own impulses, and in dread of punishment. And movies were able to bring out the stories' primitive-sophisticated power -- their suggestiveness. Science fiction, the modern successor to tales of the supernatural, lacks those psychological dimensions, it doesn't have the whole nighttime apparatus of guilt and superstition clinging to it. The attraction of science fiction is that it's an escape into an almost abstract unknown. Those who are frightened of, despairing about, or bored with this world like to turn their hopes to other worlds in space, but they're not much interested in people. Imagination and idealism are expressed in simplified, allegorical terms. Generally speaking, when a speculative fantasy deals with human conflicts in any depth, it ceases to be called science fiction. The persistent fault of sci-fi movies has been the split between the splendor of their special effects and the stilted mediocrity of their characters, situations, and dialogue. There has probably never been a first-rate characterization in an American science-fiction movie -- how could there be, since the stories don't depend on character? (That's why science fiction used to be considered a pulp genre.) It's difficult to think even of one well-written role. Kubrick's 2001 was no exception: its only character who made any impression was Hal, the voice of the computer. In Star Wars audiences fell in love with R2D2 and C3PO; people had the same reaction to Robby, the robot in Forbidden Planet, and to the drones in Silent Running (which was directed by Douglas Trumbull, who supervised the special photographic effects in Close Encounters). In sci-fi movies, the robots have personalities, the actors usually don't. 2001 wasn't a pop escapist fantasy, like Star Wars; it was an attempt at a more serious view of the future, which was seen as an extension of now, a super-ordinary world. In Kubrick's conception, there was no richness, no texture -- it was all blandness. He might as well have been saying, "I have seen the future and it put me to sleep." Spielberg's movie is set right now, and it has none of that ponderousness -- but it's the same bland now that sci-fi enthusiasts seem to think we live in. The banality is really in their view of human life.
Here's Susan Sontag, in an interview with Salmagundi in 1975 (collected in A Susan Sontag Reader), after having discussed her essay "The Pornographic Imagination", responding to a question about one of her earliest essays, "The Imagination of Disaster" and what she thinks of "the idea of intelligence in Arthur Clarke's Childhood's End". The interviewer wonders if Sontag can "make a connection between 'the imagination of disaster' and 'the pornographic imagination'" and then connect it all to her ideas about fascism (from "Fascinating Fascism"). Sontag, never one to turn down such a request, replies:
Science fiction -- about which I hope to write a better essay someday -- is full of authoritarian ideas, ideas that have much in common with those developed in other contemporary contexts (like pornography), illustrating typical forms of the authoritarian imagination. Clarke's fable is one of the abler examples of science fiction's characteristic polemic on behalf of an authoritarian ideal of intelligence. The romantic protest against the assassin mind, a leading theme of art and thought since the early nineteenth century, gradually became a self-fulfilling prophecy as, in the twentieth century, technocratic, purely instrumental ideas of the mind took over, which made intelligence seem hopelessly inadequate to a social and psychological disorder experienced as more menacing than ever. Science fiction promotes the idea of a superior or "higher" intelligence that will impose order on human affairs and messy emotions and, thereby, end childhood -- that is, history. Pornography, like the fascist mass spectacle, looks to the abolition of mind (in an ideal choreography of bodies, of dominators and the dominated).

We live in a culture in which intelligence is denied relevance altogether, in a search for radical innocence, or is defended as an instrument of authority and repression. In my view, the only intelligence worth defending is critical, dialectical, skeptical, desimplifying. An intelligence which aims at the definitive resolution (that is, suppression) of conflict, which justifies manipulation -- always, of course, for other people's good, as in the argument brilliantly made by Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor, which haunts the main tradition of science fiction -- is not my normative idea of intelligence. Not surprisingly, contempt for intelligence goes with the contempt for history. And history is, yes, tragic. But I'm not able to support any idea of intelligence which aims at bringing history to an end -- substituting for the tragedy that makes civilization at least possible the nightmare or the Good Dream of eternal barbarism.

09 September 2005

The Fourth Circle by Zoran Zivkovic

Below is the latest in a continuing series of guest reviews. Our reviewer this time out is E. Sedia, whose novel According To Crow was released by Five Star Books in May. Her short fiction has appeared in Analog, Fortean Bureau, and Lenox Avenue, and other venues.

Zoran Zivkovic's The Fourth Circle has been much praised as an intelligent and complex work; for the most part, I found this description accurate. The book is huge in its scope, bouncing across different worlds and epochs. It combines science, religion, and breathtaking imagery into a wonderful read.

In this novel, several storylines are loosely woven together -- all deal with "closing the Circle", or establishing contact between several different worlds. Main storylines take place in widely divergent times and settings: first, there is Rama (a computer program with a surprisingly shrill and female personality) and Sri (her creator and a Buddhist scientist.) The two of them move to an abandoned Buddhist temple in the jungle, and soon are joined by others -- a monkey who accidentally impregnates Rama, Archimedes, Stephen Hawking and other scientific and fictional figures.

Another storyline describes trials of a (Russian?) medieval fresco painter's assistant, an old man who is both fearful and adoring of his master (whose tortured spirituality reminded me a lot of Andrei Rublev.) The assistant describes a struggle between God and devil in his Master's art, and we are given a convincing account of events filtered through a deeply religious worldview.

The third is the last case of Sherlock Holmes; it takes place in an alternate universe, where Holmes is a real character, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is a librarian.

Additional storylines are less prominent, and deal with different beings -- spheres, anthropomorphic multi-limbed wolf packs, disembodied intelligences; all are as bent on breaching the wall between the worlds as the main players.

And therein lies the first problem I have with this book -- while the many storylines are fascinating, they don't quite fit together. There are many strange and wonderful things happening, and saying, "Look, they all happen for the same reason" was not quite enough to tie the disparate threads together.

Nonetheless, I quite enjoyed the frequent shifts in space and time. Also, puzzling out all the underlying symbols became a game. Circle obviously provides the main symbolic engine, and it appears in many forms -- Archimedes' famous circles in the sand, roulette wheels, circles of hell, Ludolph van Ceulen's obsession with calculating all digits of pi, black holes, singularity, etc. The book explores both mythological and scientific significance of circles, and uses them as a universal sign capable of bringing different worlds together. The book's structure is full of turns and dead ends, huge and labyrinthine, and I spent many happy hours poking around in it.

My second problem was related to the female characters of the book. When they were not saintly archetypes (Mariya), they were delusional, hysterical, shrewish, or any combination thereof. The only two female protagonists drawn with any sort of clarity were Rama (the computer program) and Sarah (caretaker in the Stephen Hawking episode); both were unbearable. The author leads us to believe that in both personality flaws were due to reading too many women's magazines or romance novels. In the case of Rama, her creator wanted her to have a feminine personality, and presumably achieved it by feeding the program a decade-worth of Vogue. Rama herself constantly refers to her feminine intuition and other stereotypical female characteristics; at the same time, she perceives herself as an organized and logical being. She's a caricature at best.

Sarah fares no better -- soaps and romance novels for her are what magazines are for Rama, and her perception of reality is ultimately distorted by them. I suppose it wouldn't bother me so much if there were a single sane female in this book, but no such luck. Women in this book come in two flavors: unattainable ideal of beauty and wisdom, or a delusional shrew.

Despite these flaws, the book is well worth reading. It is sprawling, bursting with ideas and images, lies so marvelous that they convince with their sheer audacity. It is difficult to put down, or to dismiss it as anything less than a major work.

A Fine Morning for a Linkdump

I've got a bunch of things to post over the next few days and weeks (at least one guest review, a discussion of Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys, a review of J.M. Coetzee's Slow Man, maybe some thoughts on M. Rickert's "Anyways", a bit more Sontag & Kael, etc.)

But at the moment I just need to clean out the ol' bookmarks of links I've saved, so here they are:

07 September 2005

Prose in Poetry

I am a relatively naive reader of poetry, and I doubt I would enjoy any if I weren't. The dogmas, ideologies, spats, quarrels, and manifestos don't much interest me, because my taste, such as it is (instinct might be a better word) seems incapable of tying itself to any school or movement, or even a range of them, and any explanation I might offer for being interested or not interested in a particular poem or poet is likely to be unenlightening and flatfooted. Since I don't write poetry criticism, this is not a problem. It allows me, though, to appreciate people who write poetry criticism that is engaging, clear, and thoughtful.

Another confession: I have for a while thought that, in general, I dislike the poetry in Poetry magazine. I wouldn't have said I hated it -- rarely had I found a poem in Poetry that stirred me to such a passionate response. When I was in high school, and even college, I thought Poetry was where the "good poems" were supposed to be, and so I read one issue after another, hoping and hoping for something that excited me as much as Eliot's "Prufrock", which Poetry originally published. Finally, I just stopped reading the magazine.

Nonetheless, when the magazine offered seventeen issues for considerably less than the price of a subscription, I took them up on the offer, partly because I wanted to see what Rick Moody had to say about Olena Kalytiak Davis's Shattered Sonnets, Love Cards, and Other Off and Back Handed Importunities, a book I adore, but also because I was curious to see what sorts of things were being published now that $100 million bequest from Ruth Lilly had begun to settle in.

The magazines just arrived, and I've spent a few hours reading through them, often with pleasure. There's something to be said for having low expectations -- surprise is not impossible. What most surprised me was not the poetry, most of which still doesn't hold much appeal for me, but the prose. Moody's review was fine (positive, adequate), but I particularly liked what it was part of: "Six Novelists on Six Poets", a fun way, at least in theory, to break through some of the cant and repetitiveness that inevitably grows where people only write about the subject they know best.

I liked, too, many of the short reviews in each issue. It shouldn't be surprising that poets can write reviews that are both succinct and effective, but I've read plenty that are neither. Some of the longer reviews are interesting as well: Meghan O'Rourke's "Subject Sylvia", Danielle Chapman on Samuel Menashe, Michael Hoffmann on W.S. Graham. There are "exchanges" between two writers on assigned subjects: Meghan O'Rourke and A.E. Stallings on Lorine Niedecker, Averill Curdy and Dan Chiasson on poetry prizes, four poets on "Ambition and Greatness". Probably the biggest surprise for me was how lively the letters columns are, and how much what gets argued about would, in general, sound familiar to readers of the messageboards of magazines like Asimov's and Fantasy & Science Fiction: the death/undeath of x, y, or z; the usefulness/destructiveness of negative/positive reviews; the accuracy of particular reviews; the declining/rising quality of the magazine; political correctness/lack of diversity; etc. (Seen one subculture, you've seen 'em all, I suppose.)

Part of what made me appreciate these issues of Poetry was not just my low expectations, but the fact that I had seventeen issues to browse through. It's easy to ignore the stuff that doesn't appeal when there you've got plenty of material to roam through. Had I subscribed to Poetry, I probably would have let my subscription lapse, since I tend to prefer the sorts of poetry found at places like Jacket, and a subscription to Poetry is hardly cheap (they get $100 million bequested and they still charge people $35 a year?!), and -- well, I could go on and on, and would risk trivializing how interesting I really have found the prose in these issues of Poetry, and even a couple of poems.

On an unrelated point: The cover of the latest issue of Fence has stirred up some controversy, particularly in light of what editor Rebecca Wolff says to explain it. (Me, I'm with Dan Green, concerned less with the cover and more with how little content the magazine puts online.) Via Josh Corey I discovered a 2001 screed against Fence, along with a great discussion that followed. And people think science fiction fans get fiesty...

If I Could Blog to the Aliens...

This may be old news to all of you, but there's a service that beams blogs to outer space.

If any of you reading this are an alien, I hope you were designed by a scientist and are not one of the aliens that voted for Bush.

06 September 2005

Kael's Books at Hampshire College

The Boston Globe reports:
Anyone interested in the books in Pauline Kael's life, or at least the ones about film, can inspect the contents of a sizable alcove on the second floor of Hampshire College's Johnson Library Center. Shelved there are the roughly 3,000 books and periodicals that made up Kael's professional library.

The Pauline Kael Collection, which opened last September, is no mahogany-paneled famous author shrine. It's a well-lit, no-nonsense space surrounded on three sides by metal shelves and furnished in what might best be called Open Stack Nondescript: two small tables, a couple of sofas, a few chairs.
At the college's website, you can see pictures of the collection, which does indeed look nondescript.

One of the amazing things about the collection -- which has books that are filled with Kael's marginalia -- is that it circulates:
The sale was made with the understanding that Kael's books would form ''a working special collection," Lopez says, ''rather than one just salted away." As a result, its contents can be checked out.

''It's well used by the students," says Hampshire's Carpenter. Although separate circulation figures aren't kept, she notes, ''Returns to the collection are kept on a separate cart, and every day it's full."
Some of the marginalia mentioned in the article are intriguing:
William Goldman's ''Adventures in the Screen Trade" abounds in marginalia. Where Goldman notes that ''The Godfather: Part II" got more Oscar nominations than its predecessor, a clearly exasperated Kael scrawled, ''Did you notice its quality? Goldman sees everything in terms of formula."

Today's Sontag

Finding self-contained quotes from Sontag and Kael that won't completely distort their ideas has been more of a challenge than I expected it to be, but challenges can be fun, so here's a pretty much self-contained paragraph from an interview with Sontag:
To reproach artists for having an insufficiently radical relation to the world has to be a complaint about art as such. And to reproach art is, in more than one way, like reproaching consciousness itself for being a burden. For consciousness can be conscious of itself, as Hegelians quaintly say, only through its sense of the past. And art is the most general condition of the Past in the present. To become past is, in one version, to become art. (The arts that most literally illustrate this mutation are architecture and photography.) The pathos that all works of art reek of comes from their historicity. From the way they are overtaken by physical decay and stylistic obsolescence. And from whatever is mysterious, partly (and forever) veiled about them. And simply from our awareness, with each work, that no one would or could ever do exactly that again. Perhaps no work of art is art. It can only become art, when it is part of the past. In this normative sense, a "contemporary" work of art would be a contradiction -- except so far as we can, in the present, assimilate the present to the past.

--Susan Sontag,
"The Salmagundi Interview", 1975
in A Susan Sontag Reader

05 September 2005

Mieville, Metaphor, and Mood; or, The Plot to Plot

Via the new and final third installment of an interview with China Mieville at Long Sunday, we learn that China is doing some political blogging (mostly about the hurricane) over at Lenin's Tomb. Here's a link to what is, as I write, the most recent post.

The third part of the interview at Long Sunday is worth attention, too. (Links to Part 1 and Part 2.) I've just begun reading China's new story collection, Looking for Jake, and reading the first few stories, which I hadn't encountered before, I began to think that what he uses the short story form for is the exploration of how mood and metaphor can work together, and that a basic plot is there only as a way to keep the reader reading when not more interested by other things. Thus, I was heartened to see him confirm this idea in the interview (because I'm generally paranoid that I'm reading things entirely wrong, and therefore Missing the Point ... which would be a good alternative title for this blog, now that I think about it):
...one of the things you have the opportunity to do in a short story is to indulge a mood, an idea, a sensibility, rather than worrying too much about plot. So that makes it feel more 'literary', because you have the surreal/strange/dreamlike, but without the necessity of shots-ringing-out and the cavalry riding in. Then the next thing you know, people are comparing you to Borges. Cool.
Borges seems to me to be the wrong comparison, but critics often have rather broad templates by which they create analogies, and it's certainly true that "surreal/strange/dreamlike" with less overt plot manipulations does cause a lot of readers to file something in the category "literary" rather than "popular", at least these days.

China then offers a quick equation for discussion, but it doesn't get much, and deserves a bit more: "Fantastic + plot = pulp. Fantastic - plot = literature". Here's where Borges becomes a propos, because much of his fiction is laden with plot, though seldom in an entirely linear way (there are some basically linear stories, though; for instance, "The Dead Man"). It's easy to forget how plot-heavy Borges's stories are, because the stories' tones, structures, and subjects often encourage us to see the plots as philosophical arguments rather than as clear routes to the basic pleasures of entertainment. They are plots that create intellectual entertainment more than the traditional sort of suspenseful, emotional entertainment. The same is true for very many stories that are highly regarded as works of literature: they have plots, and sometimes lots of plot, but the reader's attention is shifted toward other elements as well, or the enjoyment of the plot as an element in and of itself is obstructed through any number of techniques. China's equation is, I think, more about perception than about reality -- it's an illusion that comforts both the lovers and haters of this thing we're calling "plot" (but which may, in fact, be something entirely else).

The misunderstanding of plot and its use in what, for lack of a better term, I'll call self-consciously literary fiction, extends not only to people who think that such fiction is pretentious and dull (plotless), but also to many aspiring, and even published, writers of literary fiction. But it isn't the lack of plot that causes much good literary fiction to seem different from much good popular fiction -- it is the strength of other elements along with the plot. One of the most popular books for young writers with literary aspirations is John Gardner's The Art of Fiction, which contains such pronouncements as, "At least in conventional fiction, the moment we stop caring where the story will go next, the writer has failed, and we stop reading" and "any narrative more than a few pages long is doomed to failure if it does not set up and satisfy plot expectations" and "Though character is the emotional core of great fiction, and though action with no meaning beyond its own brute existence can have no lasting appeal, plot is -- or must sooner or later become -- the focus of every good writer's plan."

Certainly, Gardner was writing in response to the approaches of such writers as John Barth and William Gass, who downplayed the value and meaning of plot, but Gardner's ideas of fiction seem to have held strong in most of the venues fiction gets talked about, and in the majority of writing workshops. There are writers who seek to get rid of plot altogether, but few of them are in the mainstream of the literary world, and so trying to define "literature" by them would be like trying to define "science fiction" using only the writings of, say, R.A. Lafferty.

I might quibble with some of Gardner's formulations, but I think the key to the difference between what tends to get labeled as "literature" and what tends to get labeled as "pulp" lies in his phrase "action with no meaning beyond its own brute existence" -- "brute" is an unfortunate word there, and I might substitute something like "raw", but action-for-its-own-sake versus action-in-the-service-of-something-else gets at some of the trouble between the two sorts of writing. It's difficult to read Borges and think the events are there just to be events, the causal relationships created purely for their own sake; its difficult to read Robert E. Howard and think much else. I don't necessarily mean that as an insult -- someone who is reading Howard for all sorts of reasons other than plot is likely to be missing any of the pleasure such writing can offer. Indeed, one of the common complaints of fans against critics is that they read too much into actions. It seems absurd to put too many interpretive tools up against the shallow actions of plotting-for-its-own-sake, where the purpose is either so obvious as to defy contemplation, or it's a failure.

"Plot", like most terms for literary elements, is useful only up to a certain point, after which it falls apart in a cacophony of contradictions and muddled meanings, because there's only so much you can abstract and generalize. I'll try to use the word less, or else nothing I say here will make the least bit of sense.

The trap many aspiring literary writers fall into is in mistaking static situations for dramatic situations. Most people who are drawn to writing literary fiction have a particular love for language, metaphor, imagery, and small moments of psychological revelation. It's a rare writer who can create anything particularly satisfying from those elements alone, however. (I recently described a book I found unreadable by saying that somebody must have told the author he wrote beautiful sentences, and so he decided to run out and fill 450 pages with them.) If a writer wants a narrative to be compelling, if they want a reader to feel a certain need to continue to read it, then they should try to make change central to the story rather than try to make a story that is a portrait of a few moments, a setting and characters caught in amber, a collection of moods. What has been written could be sensitive, it could be lovely, it could even be evocative, but it's unlikely to be compelling, and unless a story is either very short or a work of genius, it's going to need to compel readers to keep reading it instead of reading something else.

On the other hand, the trap many aspiring writers of popular fiction fall into is mistaking lots of action for a story. Lots of action might be compelling in video games, where the audience participates, but it's monotonous in a narrative unless it is linked to other elements, because there's just no reason to keep reading it when there are plenty of other stories that offer something more than just a bunch of titillating events.

Which brings us back to China Mieville. I find him a particularly interesting writer to think about, because his work so often, and so consciously, dances between all these tendencies (sometimes with more success than others, of course, but watching the dance is as provocative as evaluating it). His short stories show this even better than his novels. Stories like "Looking for Jake", "Foundation", or "Reports of Certain Events in London" come close to being little more than a situation, a fun idea, a concept. Except, because they are written by someone well-practiced at creating suspense, they hang their situations on a basic what's-going-on mystery/quest structure, just enough plot to keep the reader's interest moving toward an ending that provides its satisfactions through the evocation of a mood or image. These aren't ambitious or thought-provoking structures -- certainly not compared with a writer like Borges -- but they are effective at doing what they set out to do, and I find such stories more rewarding to read than stories that are nothing but mood and imagery, or action for its own sake, because they provide mood, imagery, and action together. It's not a transcendent formula, but it's satisfying.

02 September 2005

A Weekend Dose of Sontag & Kael

Continuing the not-quite-random quoting from the works of Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael, here are some words for the weekend, since I am heading out of town and won't be posting anything more until Monday.

First, Sontag, in an early essay:
Ours is indeed an age of extremity. For we live under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror. It is fantasy, served out in large rations by the popular arts, which allows most people to cope with these twin specters. For one job that fantasy can do is to lift us out of the unbearably humdrum and to distract us from terrors -- real or anticipated -- by an escape into exotic, dangerous situations which have last-minute happy endings. But another of the things that fantasy can do is to normalize what is psychologically unbearable, thereby inuring us to it. In one case, fantasy beautifies the world. In the other, it neutralizes it.

The fantasy in science fiction films does both jobs. The films reflect world-wide anxieties, and they serve to allay them. They inculcate a strange apathy concerning the processes of radiation, contamination, and destruction which I for one find haunting and depressing. The naive level of the films neatly tempers the sense of otherness, of alien-ness, with the grossly familiar. In particular, the dialogue of most science fiction films, which is full of monumental but often touching banality, makes them wonderfully, unintentionally funny. Lines like, "Come quickly, there's a monster in my bathtub," "We must do something about this," "Wait, Professor. There's someone on the telephone," "But that's incredible," and the old American stand-by, "I hope it works!" are hilarious in the context of picturesque and deafening holocaust. Yet the films also contain something that is painful and in deadly earnest.

--Susan Sontag,
from "The Imagination of Disaster"
in Against Interpretation, and Other Essays
And now some early Kael, wherein she becomes fed up with European art films full of decadent parties:
These movies are said to be "true" and "important" because this kind of high life has been observed (gossip columnists assure us that they have been eyewitnesses); do the people who read the gossip columns get so much vicarious pleasure that they think they're living it? Here we are in an age of increasing mechanization and dehumanization -- with the trends horribly the same under both capitalism or socialism, with no relief in sight, and people go to Fellini's and Antonioni's Marxist-Catholic-Hollywood glamour parades and come away carrying the banner that fornication is the evil of our times! And whom do these directors pick to symbolize the victims of materialism: the artists -- just the ones who escape into freedom. I'll admit that I once knew an apparently bored artist, a famous composer, born wealthy, who said to me, "The days are always two hours too long for me." I wanted to hit him with a poker because the days are always too short for me and I am always trying to prolong them by staying up half the night. But I decided that he was using his boredom as a come-on -- a lure so that people would want to fascinate him, to awaken him from his sleeping beauty trance.

--Pauline Kael,
from "The Come-Dressed-as-the-Sick-Soul-of-Europe Parties"
in I Lost It At the Movies

Five Years of Strange Horizons

Jed Hartman notes that yesterday was the fifth birthday of Strange Horizons. Certainly, I may be somewhat biased, being a columnist for them, but I was a Strange Horizons fan long before they asked me to join the crew. Five years of putting out a weekly magazine -- no easy task. All of the staff are volunteers, but the writers are paid, and this has helped the magazine maintain a level of quality and consistency that is impressive. The diversity of the stories, poems, articles, and essays is impressive, and there's rarely an issue that doesn't have at least something of interest. They get criticized sometimes because the magazine can be difficult to label, because much of the fiction they publish plays around with the borders and outlines of expectations, and because the editors have an interest in various styles and forms of writing. I think this is a strength, even though it means that inevitably we end up disappointed or even annoyed by some stories, some essays, some poems. So what? Next week, there's something new. It's a joy to check in every Monday, just to see what odd items they have discovered now.

You can read through the archives and find much pleasure there is to be had. Or we can indulge in a moment of nostalgia and tribute -- here are some pieces from the September 1, 2000 issue:
Editorial by founding editor Mary Anne Mohanraj
Fiction: "Triage" by Tamela Viglione
Poetry: "Surreal Domestic" by Bruce Boston
Interview: Nalo Hopkinson
Review: Harry Potter and the Goblet of FIre by Jen Larsen
Art Gallery: Rebecca Kemp
Many thanks to everybody who has worked on Strange Horizons over the years -- the editors, the proofreaders, the behind-the-scenes techies and development folks, the writers, the readers. I look forward to the magazine's tenth birthday with great anticipation for what marvels will be discovered between now and then.

PEN Literary Awards

Mark Sarvas reports that the PEN 2005 Literary Awards include the award for Children's Literature to Gifts by Ursula LeGuin. The judges said: "Gifts is a novel of startling grace and mythological complexity, and it manages to be both hopeful and truthful about genetic destiny and personal will."

The winning screenplay was Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind by Charlie Kaufman. Clearly given out of pity for it not winning a Hugo.

01 September 2005

Kael Quote for the Day

Those, like [Andrew] Sarris, who ask for objective standards seem to want a theory of criticism which makes the critic unnecessary. And he is expendable if categories replace experience; a critic with a single theory is like a gardener who uses a lawn mower on everything that grows. Their desire for a theory that will solve all the riddles of creativity is in itself perhaps an indication of their narrowness and confusion; they're like those puzzled, lost people who inevitably approach one after a lecture and ask, "But what is your basis for judging a movie?" When one answers that new films are judged in terms of how they extend our experience and give us pleasure, and that our ways of judging how they do this are drawn not only from older films but from other works of art, and theories of art, that new films are generally related to what is going on in the other arts, that as wide a background as possible in literature, painting, music, philosophy, political thought, etc., helps, that it is the wealth and variety of what he has to bring to new works that makes the critic's reaction to them valuable, the questioners are always unsatisfied. They wanted a simple answer, a formula; if they approached a chef they would probably ask for the one magic recipe that could be followed in all cooking.

And it is very difficult to explain to such people that criticism is exciting just because there is no formula to apply, just because you must use everything you and are and everything you know that is relevant, and that film criticism is particularly exciting just because of the multiplicity of elements in film art.

--Pauline Kael,
"Circles and Squares: Joys and Sarris" (1963)
in I Lost It at the Movies

Sontag Quote for the Day

To initiate the quoting of Sontag and Kael, here's something I sent to Jeff VanderMeer after he alerted me to this discussion of "whether the critical approach and the interpretation which criticism necessitated means that the naievety is lost" in SF and fantasy. It's not exactly about the same thing, but it's interesting nonetheless:
"Meaning" partially or totally converted into "use" is the secret behind the widespread strategy of literalness, a major development of the aesthetics of silence. A variant on this: hidden literality, exemplified by such different writers as Kafka and Beckett. The narratives of Kafka and Beckett seem puzzling because they appear to invite the reader to ascribe high-powered symbolic and allegorical meanings to them and, at the same time, repel such ascriptions. Yet, when the narrative is examined, it discloses no more than what it literally means. The power of their language derives precisely from the fact that the meaning is so bare.

The effect of such bareness is often a kind of anxiety -- like the anxiety produced when familiar things aren't in their place or playing their accustomed role. One may be made as anxious by unexpected literalness as by the Surrealists' "disturbing" objects and unexpected scale and condition of objects conjoined in an imaginary landscape. Whatever is wholly mysterious is at once both psychically relieving and anxiety-producing. (A perfect machine for agitating this pair of contrary emotions: the Bosch drawing in a Dutch museum that shows trees furnished with ears at the sides of their trunks, as if they were listening to the forest, while the forest floor is strewn with eyes.) Before a fully conscious work of art, one feels something like the mixture of anxiety, detachment, pruriency, and relief that a physically sound person feels when he glimpses an amputee.

--Susan Sontag,
"The Aesthetics of Silence" (1967)
in Styles of Radical Will

Kael & Sontag, Sontag & Kael

I noted earlier that I was reading Craig Seligman's excellent book Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me, about critics Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael, and that I was thinking of writing my next Strange Horizons column about those two writers and Seligman's book. I followed through on that idea, and completed a draft of the column yesterday, but while I was writing I realized that what I really wanted to do most, after spending a week reading almost nothing but their work, was quote Kael and Sontag a lot, and that the column didn't allow me the space to do so. Therefore, between now and the time the column is posted, I'll be putting various short excerpts from each writer's work up here for you to enjoy or be infuriated by.

Before I do that, here are some links to various online things by and about the two writers that I found while doing research for the column:

Return of the Blog

Despite what some people think ([cough] Mike Allen [cough]), I did not spend my time away from here just sitting in the yard and drinking gin & tonics. But I got a bunch of things done that needed it, and am now ready to roll with whatever rolls around here. First, some catch-up...

I don't need to tell you about the hurricane, or to suggest donations are humane. Mike Morrow has suggested that LitBloggers give their book-buying money for the month to the relief effort; since my book-buying budget is now not more than $20/month (income having changed rather drastically recently), I sent more than that to the Red Cross and Noah's Wish. The blogosphere has had plenty of information of all sorts. I've been paying particular attention to About Last Night, Making Light, Ed Champion, and Boing Boing. Kathryn Cramer has had some interesting posts, as has Crooked Timber. David Moles is paying attention to the politics. The best single post I've read is Cherie Priest's thoughts on looting, economics, and disaster. Maud Newton has reminded us of New Orleans's rich literary history. The Times-Picayune can't publish a physical paper, but they're still going strong online.

If reading more about the disaster is not what you want, well, here are some other links I've gathered in the past ten days, some of which I'm sure are old familiars by now:
  • The new SF Site has been posted, and includes my rather odd and perhaps even silly review of Christopher Priest's excellent novel The Glamour.

  • While I was gone, author Kate Atkinson put up some posts at The LitBlog Co-Op about her book Case Histories, how she writes, what she thinks, etc. Keep your eyes on the LBC, as we will soon be unveiling the next Read This selection, which is likely to be just as controversial as the first one was.

  • The NYT reported that Richard Foreman, an institution in the avant-garde theatre scene of New York, has released his notebooks online for anybody to use to create plays from, since that's what he does with them. Reading Foreman texts doesn't really give a sense of what it's like to see one of his shows (sensory overload), but I find them fascinating nonetheless.

  • Fafblog interviewed the Democrats

  • Aaron Haspel slaughters Camille Paglia's poetry anthology.

  • A tremendously amusing interview with Peter Akroyd
    "I find bad reviews, when I do read them, more energising than good ones, which aren't interesting." I've never heard a writer say that before. So he wants constructive criticism? "No," he says slyly, peering round his wine glass, "that's the worst criticism of all. I like abuse! Abuse is what keeps the world going round. Abuse is great. You need it to keep you up in the air."
    (via Splinters)

  • Laila Lalani is blogging from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. I attended Bread Loaf back in the summer of 2000, and it was an extraordinary experience, one I still feel I'm learning from. Laila has already noted attending a lecture by Charles Baxter, who is a genius when it comes to looking at how fiction works. If you write fiction and haven't read his Burning Down the House : Essays on Fiction, you are missing the best single book on writing I know of other than John Gardner's The Art of Fiction.

  • SovLit.com has gathered a bunch of material by and about Andrei Platonov, including some new translations. Don't know Platonov's work? You're in for a treat. His The Fierce and Beautiful World is an extraordinary collection of stories, and his novels are also well worth reading. (via Languor Management)

  • The Complete Review has rounded up some reviews of Zoran Zivkovic.

  • Jeff and Ann VanderMeer have metamorphosed into a bookstore.