30 December 2005

Documenting and Perceiving

Teachers stay teachers because they are addicted to the occasional joys, the joys that overshadow the common and continuous frustrations (mounds of things to grade, recalcitrant students, angry parents, obtuse bureaucrats). One of the greatest joys is to see students go off into the world and seize the opportunities they encounter.

photo by Ramsay de GiveWhen Ramsay de Give was a student at the school where I teach, we all knew he was a talented photographer and an intelligent and compassionate human being. For various reasons, we weren't exactly sure what would become of him in the world, though. It was a great pleasure, then, when he sent me the address of his website, because there were the fruits of his past few years' work as a photojournalist, and the results are, in my entirely biased opinion, extraordinary.

Ramsay uses his images to tell stories about the world, stories that might not otherwise be told. I found the "stories and essays" section of his website particularly moving and extraordinary, as Ramsay portrays the lives of children born addicted to heroin with an unsentimental sensitivity rare in any storyteller, never mind one of his relative youth. But he has experienced far more of the world than many people much older than he is, a fact that was vividly clear when he was a student, not only in his photographs, but also in the seriousness with which he approached reading and writing in my class. He is one of those students who taught me far more than I taught him, and who continues to teach through the pictures he takes and the stories he tells.

28 December 2005

I Hate What You Love

The most interesting message board discussion I've seen recently concerns Lucius Shepard's film reviews, particularly his review of King Kong ("Jackson, once an edgy, intriguing filmmaker, has fallen prey to the same ethos that underscores the films of his immediate predecessors, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas: To make a mark, a movie must play as though to an audience of children...and not especially astute children at that").

Some of Shepard's reviews get reprinted in F&SF, and a reader poses the question to editor Gordon van Gelder: "Why do you continue to publish film reviews from a man who hates every film ever made by Hollywood?" It turns into a pretty good conversation, because the reader is not entirely pigheaded about his opinions, Shepard joins in later, and lots of good issues are raised and bounced around.

Yesterday, I happened to read critic James Wood's essay in the third issue of N+1, written in response to the editors of the journal who had previously complained that the book reviews in The New Republic are written by "designated haters". It's a great exchange, and the editors of N+1 say it prompted them to create a symposium on American writing for the next issue. Here are a few of the things Wood had to say:
...I have always been fond of Turgenev's remark about Belinsky, that he was "not a negationist; he negated in the name of an ideal." ...

Henry James has a nice letter to Grace Norton, in which he defends Roderick Hudson against her mixed-to-negative review of it in the Nation: "I thank you must sincerely for noting those weak spots; it is invaluable, indispensable, to a style to feel itself watched, vigilantly." To feel itself watched, vigilantly: how stern James was, and how moist our own optic has become, as we run around town denouncing negativity and "snark." The issue has never been "snark"; it has always been intelligence, and writers rightly prefer intelligent hostility to stupid praise. ...

And yes, one knows what it is like to receive a harsh review; and yes, one is aware of the basic inhumanity of the critic's task. I write as one whose misfortune, having published a so-so novel, is to have received as his very first fiction review in England a piece with the headline, "You won't laugh, you won't cry," and then the obliging strap line: "James Wood's first novel has neither comedy nor pathos."
Wood goes on to create an argument for his own aesthetic beliefs, and to make a plea for serious, artful criticism.

Lucius Shepard's reviews are great fun to read, but they are also built upon some fundamental beliefs about entertainment and art. The negative ones are not superficial take-downs any more than the positive ones are shallow praisefests. Agreement or disagreement is nearly irrelevant with such writing, because the reviews lay out their ideas with specific evidence. I disagree with Shepard plenty, but find that his reviews help me better understand why I appreciate things he doesn't or vice versa because he offers both passion and reason -- the passion spurs my own, the reason challenges me to answer it.

If more critics and viewers were watching films as vigilantly and passionately as Shepard, we might not find our cinemas drowning in dreck. (Yes, that's an ideal.)

27 December 2005

A Conversation with Maria Dahvana Headley

First, we need some context.

Maria Headley and I have known each other since the late '90s, when we were both struggling, semi-idealistic aspiring playwrights attending the Dramatic Writing Program at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. I was a couple years ahead of Maria and destined soon to flee Manhattan for the coziness of the University of New Hampshire, while Maria was destined to embark on the ... experiment ... that would lead to her new memoir, The Year of Yes.

What was the experiment? Quite a simple one: She said yes to everybody who asked her out on a date. Everybody.

I haven't yet read The Year of Yes, but I know there's a happy ending to it all, because Maria married Robert Schenkkan, the Pulitzer-winning writer of The Kentucky Cycle plays, as well as Lewis and Clarke Reach the Euphrates, currently playing at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. He's not just an accomplished writer, but, by all accounts, a marvelous human being.

Maria and I did a decidedly silly interview, because everybody else keeps asking her serious questions, and I've never subjected her to such things (even when I directed her in an excerpt from Peter Handke's play "Offending the Audience" in a directing class we survived together). Here it is:


We knew each other at NYU when you were a freshman and I was a junior, after which time I transferred to UNH and you began your experiment (a coincidence, not a correlation). How did you survive four years when I could only get through three?

After year one, beginning a long slide into chaos and empty pockets, I barely appeared on the floor [of the Dramatic Writing Program], because I a) had five jobs, and b) was a colossal snob and wanted to "learn from life" instead of from teachers and c) was dating all of New York. When I met you, though, I was a writing program innocent, and we suffered together the aggravation of a certain directing class. It was only later that I became the libertine The Year of Yes details.

So should I have just gone on dates with anybody who asked?

Obviously. Also with anyone who whistled, made cat sounds, groaned as you passed, said things like "Uh-huh," "Work it, mama," and "Yo, yo, yo, I know you, right?", made eyes, made kissy faces, made sounds like a sprinkler from out of the dark, hit on you as you were foraging for ice cream in the back of a bodega freezer case, and/or as they were teaching a class you were a student in. Hey, it turned out well for me.

Much of my survival at NYU can be attributed to choosing people to have crushes on, obsessing over them as I wrote, and then managing to churn out some fairly decent writing based on thwarted yearning. Christina Nehring wrote an essay about this a few years ago in Harpers...though hers was about the benefits of teacher-student lust on the productivity of both. I had some of that too, but my preferred poison was always grad students. You could leave notes in their cubby holes, and then flee, blushing and snorting to yourself. My favorite of those was a hot Puerto Rican yoga master playwright, but he volunteered to babysit my cat while I was on vacation, and the cat neurotically ate his entire broom and then vomited straw across the guy's house. The guy didn't really like me after that happened, for some reason. Perhaps he saw a correlation between cat-neurosis and me-neurosis. I might have eaten his broom too, out of sheer joy, if he'd only let me have a few moments in downward dog with him. It was not to be. Sigh.

How, in hindsight, do you think you could have prevented the cat from eating the broom?

Slept with the broom's owner, obviously. My cat was driven to eat his broom because of displaced sexual tension. If the guy and I had just slept together, we would've been purged of this, and my cat would no doubt have curled up sweetly at his house and napped. Being kept from the one you want to love is, in the end, all too similar to straw gobbling. After my cat ate the broom, he proceeded to get into a battle with the guy's miniature pinscher. He came home with two black eyes, and a bite of ear missing, not to mention a troubled digestive tract. He was really never the same. All he wanted was love, love and the chance to spin straw into gold...or in this case, not exactly gold. But still. I think a good roll in the hay (or straw, or linoleum, or futon) with the guy would've helped both me and my cat considerably.

I heard from a publishing insider that the original title of your memoir was actually Magic for Beginners, but that Kelly Link heard about it, wanted the title herself, and threatened to subject you to an endless marathon of zombie movies unless you gave it to her. Is this true?

It's true, it's true! Before that, though, it was called Exit Pursued by a Bear, and, to my woe, no one had a clue what I was talking about, or even that I was referencing Shakespeare. I tried to go with Alchemy for Experts, but that seemed a little too similar to Kelly's book, and I didn't want to seem like a copycat. Besides: magic trumps alchemy. You can do anything with magic. Alchemy only gives you gold. Which, in the end, is not all you need. Gold alone will not get you satisfaction: witness the pitiable pick-up line foisted on me by an LA guy recently, when he spied me scribbling in a notebook...
SLIMY GUY: You know, I'm actually a writer too.
MARIA: (not looking at him) That's interesting.
SLIMY GUY: Except, I write checks. Big ones. For lots of money. Because I have lots of money.
It didn't work, needless to say. I went home and watched a few of the zombie movies premptively, just in case Kelly was planning to make good on her threat. However, zombies are really nothing compared to random guys in coffee shops.

How did you go about reconstructing the events of your life into a narrative? Do you have a perfect memory, or did you just start making stuff up when you needed?

I have endless notebooks from this period of time. I was, after all, in a writing program. My notebooks from class are all hybrids of notes on Arthurian Myth, and some guy named Craig's phone number and identifying characteristics. I kept thinking I was going to make a one-woman show out of the material, but it never worked. I had, incidentally, far more material than I actually used. I went out with about 150 people during this year, and I only really wrote about my favorites. So, I didn't need to make anything up. I'm sure, though, that there are things I made up without knowing it. Memory is a bitch that way. It fills in blanks, and you have no idea that it's filling them in out of scenes from Sam Shepard plays you were reading at the time. So, if Sam reads this book and recognizes anything, I apologize. I thought it was real.

Might you still consider making The Year of Yes into a one-woman show? And would you ever consider casting me to play you in it?

Yes, maybe. I also have a composer friend who might want to make it into a musical with me. If that happens, I'm hoping for a nice chorus line of Ziegfieldian feather dancers. Why have a musical, if you aren't going to have feather dancers? And yes, I would definitely cast you. You could then go out with a spectrum of guys that I don't need to go out with again. I think you and I have enough in common that things would be fine. As long as you're willing to wear a Maria wig. A very unflattering one, considering that at the time of the year, I was cutting my own hair, and thought I'd look good with Bettie Page bangs. Not so much, it turned out.

Who do you think does look good with Bettie Page bangs?

Bettie Page. Period. I've tried them three times to date, each time because of total amnesia about what I actually look like, and each time, I've had to immediately grow them out. Maybe I also shouldn't cut my own hair with dull scissors. This is possible. And maybe I should also learn how to really use scissors. I'm a defiant leftie, but I spent most of first grade doing a unit the teacher called "Scissor Skills." She was trying to make me right-handed. Now, because of her, I cut right-handed, but not in a good way. People think I have cerebral palsy when they see me with scissors. So maybe Bettie Page bangs would look good on someone who actually had control of her scissor skills, and didn't feel the need to hack at the bangs in public restrooms with toenail scissors. Maybe. I doubt it, though. They're hard to pull off.

You and your husband are both writers. Many of the writers-married-to-writers I know are miserable and seething with repressed jealousy and self-hatred. How do you avoid misery, jealousy, and self-hatred?

We solve that by reversing our seething with misery, jealousy and self-hatred onto other people, who we loathe together, spill vitriol upon together, and yowl our choices of insult at through non-connected phone lines together. Robert's favored insult, used on anything from computer malfunction to Hollywood executives, is the following choice phrase: "You tedious motherfucking cocksucker." I sometimes hear him whispering it to his hard drive. My favorite insults are combination punches involving descendants from goat-fucking ancestors, and a variety of custom-curses. My office is in the basement and Robert's is in the attic, so our middle floor is reserved for friendly conversation, lunch together, and naps. Mostly, we don't do the same thing. If he started writing prose, there might be trouble. I do write plays, but I don't have a Pulitzer (unless husband and wife are one Pulitzer Prize Winner), so he doesn't feel too threatened in that area.

Has anybody asked you to start a dating and/or sex advice column?

Yes. We shall see, but I think I might just do it. There are lots of tortured and mangled people out there. I'm, in fact, one of them. I think maybe there ought to be someone who could call bullshit on all of our drama, from a nice print platform.

Want to practice? How would you answer the following:
Do you agree with Rufus Wainwright that 'the gay messiah is coming', and if so, what does this mean for straight women who keep finding themselves falling in love with nice men who turn out to be gay? --Wary in Wichita
The only thing that pains me in the Wainwright song is that the Gay Messiah is wearing tubesocks. To me, tubesocks reek of straightness, and they are usually worn pulled to the knee, while in bed, with tighty whities. Or maybe that's just my own bad memory of not-falling in love with a man who was not-remotely-gay -- I would have liked him far more if he was. I think it's a rite of passage for straight women to fall for gay men. I've had at least two or three. Maybe it's part of the Gay Messiah's plan. Love one another, etcetera, etcetera, regardless of unconventional bedroom situations. Who needs conventional?

Gifts from Elsewhere

Well, we survived the holidays, so now it's time to purge the bookmarks:

26 December 2005

LitFic for People Who Hate LitFic

Cheryl Morgan has posted Emerald City #124, which includes a feature article by me, "Literary Fiction for People Who Hate Literary Fiction", a piece I'm rather fond of because it ended up taking a lot more work than I had thought it would, and got me thinking about some assumptions of my own that I hadn't adequately questioned. I'm not sure much of that comes out in the article, which is pretty straightforward, but the process of revising it a few times for Cheryl forced me to have to consider some things I hadn't about the differences between readerly expectations within marketing categories. These ideas still feel vague and inchoate, but eventually I will probably explore them here or at Strange Horizons or elsewhere. We shall see. For now, though, there's the article, which is not comprehensive at all, but is, instead, an invitation for people to explore writers they might otherwise think are not their sort of thing.

25 December 2005

Happy Holidays

And when the firemen turned off the hose and were standing in the wet, smoky room, Jim's Aunt, Miss Prothero, came downstairs and peered in at them. Jim and I waited, very quietly, to hear what she would say to them. She said the right thing, always. She looked at the three tall firemen in their shining helmets, standing among the smoke and cinders and dissolving snowballs, and she said, "Would you like anything to read?"

--Dylan Thomas
A Child's Christmas in Wales

22 December 2005

"Bone Women" by Eliot Fintushel

The response in the peanut gallery to Eliot Fintushel's masterful "Bone Women" is not surprising, though it is sad. With any luck, the compulsive carpers do not represent the majority of Strange Horizons readers, but rather a little cabal of jerks with knees. Their anger when presented with stylistically and intellectually complicated writing is frustrating enough to make me want to solder their tin ears together.

What is it that compels people to speak out against a story? It's not just that they didn't like it -- unless they think the world revolves around them, I doubt such people are strolling up and down every message board to issue their complaints against all they read. Were I to post about every story I gave up on, I'd have to write about hundreds. Most such things, we read, abandon, and forget. Not my thing, we think. No big deal. It takes something more to get us to express our opinion in public, some grudge or frustration, some little nit aching to be picked.

"Bone Women" annoyed people. Its honey attracted swarming know-nothings: "I suspect it's Literature," they buzz. "Mental masturbation...like poor art, meaningless to everyone except the author," they bray. "Like my boss said to me long ago: Intro, Middle, End. Thus structure and plot. Where were they?" Might as well say: I like my fiction the way I like my food: packaged, processed, predictable.

It makes me want to get all Benford and bemoan the fate of civilization. (I might say: "So you want safe, formulaic writing that abides by the structures you've internalized and feeds you what you know you like. Good for you. We all get our kicks differently. But to raise your personal preferences to the level of law and use them to batter all that you don't understand, that's not opinion, that's not criticism -- that's a totalitarian impulse. You hate our freedoms. Climb back into your hole. Go watch a sitcom. Go stare at a wall. Bark on cue." But I won't say that. I'll try to be nice and understanding and tolerant and loving of my fellow creatures.)

Fintushel jumped into the mud pit to try to explain what he was up to: "In a word, BONE WOMEN is about facticity--about the tension between what we human beings ARE and what human beings want or need to THINK of ourselves as being." Etc. A good try, but it won't mollify the moaners. They like their skulls numb. They like to accuse the author rather than themselves, they like to say the writer is only pleasing himself, because that way they don't have to feel alone, don't have to admit they don't get it, don't have to separate from the crowd.

I suppose I wouldn't be so frustrated if this were an isolated case of people mauling a story that doesn't deserve it. De gustibus and all that jazz, yknow. But there's something about fiction that is linguistically and structurally adventurous that causes anger in certain types of readers, an anger that leads to a spewing of vitriol, and while to a certain extent I find that an interesting phenomenon, it's also disturbing.

Speculative fiction especially should be the realm of the new and strange, the oddball, the gonzo, but instead the geezers keep asserting themselves, trying to pin this beautiful butterfly of possibilities to a rancid wax tray of nostalgia. They want cant and dust, disposable one-time reads, junk.

The bleat that this must be Literature is entirely correct -- it is. This is a story that can hold its own with the best of the fiction being published today, the most interesting and innovative, the most skilled and visionary. That's what Literature is, kiddo -- it's the stuff that's so passionate and singular it inspires awe. We each carry our own personal lists of Literature with us, and eventually enough such lists converge and get packed into a Canon and shot into Classrooms and Libraries to be picked up or dropped by Posterity on one of its random walk-throughs. That's the process, but not the fun. The fun is stumbling upon such stuff, discovering it on your own, encountering unique and hilarious and perfect paragraphs such as the opening of "Bone Women":
Hildy loved me bad. Pudding of a woman, the moons behind her cheaters waxed for the love of me. She bleated after me, udders wagging, tongue lolling, buttocks dimpling, attended by flies. She was all armpit hair and thigh flesh. The cheaters, thick as hog's hooves, slid, slid down her nose, till arrested by the bump. She nudged them with a fat finger, then grinned. She wrote me love notes. I let her visit me up at the A-frame where I lived with Matt and Al. Matt: laconic, tight-muscled, trim as a bull's pizzle. Al: electric, slight, sizzle skip on the hot griddle of his libido, all eye and brow. They hated her being there. Her mouth foamed with abashment--she spoke, she didn't speak: ecstasies of impossible love. Don't ever let that person come here again, they'd tell me. She haunted the window seat and the fridge nook. She left the imprint of her navel in the screen door. Bowl-like, it was, like the sag in a cake fallen in. She mumbled half to herself, half to me, barely daring to exist, much less to love, much less to love me.
Look at those rhythms! Listen to the vowels! Grab the images and run with them! There's a whole story there, alone, in and of itself! The first time I read that paragraph, I hadn't any idea what it was about, because I was too busy listening to it, too busy feeling it. Meaning comes later. Good writing isn't an oyster with a pearl of Meaning waiting to be extracted and put in a necklace to show off at cocktail parties. Good writing does stuff to you. How something means, that's what matters. How it crashes up against your preconceptions and rewires your dreams, that's what makes it all worthwhile. Sometimes it's good to be thrown for a loop. Go with it or don't, but why get angry? Why lash out? Did somebody take your favorite toy away?

Me, I've got a new favorite toy, and it's this story, a story that jangled my nerves and made me laugh and made me confused and made me sad -- yes, while I read it, this story made me, and like any good mark, I was a sucker for it.

20 December 2005

A Number of Things

  • A Number imageToronto's CanStage Theatre will be producing Caryl Churchill's play A Number from January 9 to February 11. Why do I know this? Because in the program they're using an adapted version of my post about the script. I just saw the finished copy, and the design and layout of the piece is beautiful, with an evocative, mysterious, and sexy illustration that would be perfect alongside a lot of things I've written. The '05/'06 season looks to be extraordinary, and even includes a one-man show about one of the great American singer-songwriters, Tom Lehrer. They just finished Edward Albee's marvelous The Goat, and will later be doing Doug Wright's I am My Own Wife. It's enough to make me want to move to Toronto!

  • A lot of books have been coming in recently, many of them quite exciting. My favorite so far, and easily my favorite book of the year, is Laurence Senelick's collection of Chekhov's Complete Plays. This is published by Norton, and it includes many texts not previously available in English, including both versions of Ivanov and of the marvelous monologue "On the Evils of Tobacco". Additionally, there are copious annotations, introductions to everything, a chronology of Chekhov's life, and a magnificent chapter on all the plays Chekhov intended to write but didn't for one reason or another. Not being able to read Russian, I can't go into details about the good, bad, and ugly of the translations themselves, but the extraordinary attention to detail, and the fact that Senelick has been working on some of these scripts since the late '60s, makes me believe these are at least as good as any other translations available in English. That they have also, many of them, been produced is also heartening, because it means these scripts have been viewed not just as words on a page, but as blueprints for actors, directors, designers, and audiences. I'll be writing a lot more about this book after I've gotten the chance to live in it for a while.

  • The book mentioned above caused me to finally revisit an old Chekhov list I'd put up at Amazon in the days before I knew about blogs. It's certainly not definitive, but it is more accurate now.

  • Another great book that has been distracting me from lots of other things I need to do is Samuel Delany's About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, and Five Interviews, just published by Wesleyan. I devoured about a quarter of it yesterday after it arrived, despite needing to read an awful lot of other things. And, on the basis of a quarter of it alone, I can say this: It's the best book on writing (and reading) that I know of other than John Gardner's The Art of Fiction and Charles Baxter's Burning Down the House. The four letters alone are worth the price of the book, but there's so much more here, too, including the interview with Steve Erickson from the first issue of Black Clock, various essays from his entire career, and even an appendix of thoughts on grammar and style. Some of these pieces have appeared in others of Delany's nonfiction collections, but there's a lot that's new. All of it is uniquely Delany: tremendously thought-provoking, occasionally infuriating, sometimes impenetrable, and on the whole dazzling. (If this sounds like a review, it isn't -- that will come later when I figure out who will let me review it -- this is an exhortation: If you care about writing and reading, you must get this book.)

  • I'm 50 pages from the end of Jay Lake's novel Rocket Science, and it's a joy. It's just an utterly engaging story, but only a few books this year have seemed to me to succeed at being such things (Anansi Boys would be another), and I'm delighted. In fact, I need to stop typing now, because I can't wait to find out how it ends...
  • 18 December 2005

    Sunday Morning at the Linkdump

    17 December 2005

    Brokeback Bravery

    For your consideration, "It's Very Brave of Them":
    When I look at Brokeback Mountain all I see is fear. In the story, I see the fear of two obviously gay people too afraid to actually commit to their love, so they run off and marry women and live a life unfulfilled out of fear.

    I see the fear in two major stars of actually admitting they played gay, as they downplay in the press their characters' sexuality.

    I see the fear of movie studios too afraid to make the movie with Gus Van Sant years ago.

    I see the fear of countless Hollywood actors who wouldn’t take the parts.

    I see the fear of a still-homophobic corporate press, which grabs onto the stars' sexuality instead of the script's quality. A press that gives these stars an outlet to gauge their "comfort level" with playing these roles. A press that throws around words like bravery and courage when referring to pampered stars playing well-scripted roles.

    I see the fear of theater owners, who already are hesitant to book this film in smaller markets.

    I see the fear in filmmakers like Lee who make "gay" movies without the "gay," meaning gay people are deluged with images of heterosexual lovemaking everywhere, but should a gay couple show it on-screen—oh, no, we must hide the sex.

    I see the fear in those in Wyoming, who have already spoken out saying there's just no such thing as gay cowboys. (Well, hon, 12 men, 100 head of cattle, three months away from civilization...somebody was getting some.)

    I see the fear of the critics, who say things like New York Daily News critic Jack Mathews did when he predicted that it may be "too much for red-state audiences, but it gives the liberal-leaning Academy a great chance to stick its thumb in conservatives' eyes."
    (via Abigail Nussbaum)

    15 December 2005

    The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia

    For once, a summarist almost got it right with the jacket copy:
    Amidst disillusioned saints hiding in wrestling rings, mothers burnt by glowing halos, and a Baby Nostradamus who sees only blackness, a gang of flower pickers heads off to war, led by a lonely man who cannot help but wet his bed in sadness. Part memoir, part lies, this is a book about the wounds inflicted by first love and sharp objects.
    Except there's so much more. Instead of The People of Paper, they should have called this The Book of Extended Metaphors, to go along with one of the books between its covers, The Book of Incandescent Light. They should have called it The Book of Heartbreak or The People of Sorrow. They should have equipped it with warning signs and seatbelts to protect those of us naive enough to get caught up in the fairy tale first pages, those of us who ignored for a moment that this is a book for mature adults, people with scars, people who should not expect a book about a childproof world. They might have dropped a few more hints, might have whispered: "This book will lock you in a shed of tears."

    They should have said the truth: This book is sublime.

    Of course, you might not like it. That is your right. I will admit that I got so caught up in what the book was doing to me that I abandoned many of my analytical facilities and faculties in a fit of enchanted downsizing, that I didn't stop to think about structure or symmetry, that I didn't separate the elements based on visions of Intro to Lit textbooks dancing like sugarplums in my no-longer-New Critical brain. I read the book like a person in the first throes of love, blindly, enraptured, captured, chained, and, in the end, tortured and bereft. This one's for you, Susan: Here is your erotics of art.

    Except isn't The People of Paper all about the dangers of orgasms with origami? Remember the story it tells of Merced de Papel, the last of the paper people made by St. Antonio in the days after ribs and mud and before Swedish bioengineering -- Merced de Papel, who traveled to Los Angeles and was loved by many men, creating an ad hoc tribe of people scarred with paper cuts on their most sensitive skins. Remember the story of Liz, who loved Sal, who dreamed a world and wrote a book and couldn't have the book and the world and Liz, and so he created a Saturnalia of spite and loss, of names cut out of pages and dedications taken away.

    I don't know of another book where the metafictional games are so necessary to the ultimate emotional effect, where the fireworks explode fantasy and reality to rain down not wonder, but heartache. The experiments of typography do not create any real difficulty for the reader, but instead evoke a visual and sometimes even physical analogue to the narrative, bringing the story beyond words. Watch the colors, for instance. It is no coincidence that dominoes are a passion for so many characters here -- letters combine into words and words combine into sentences like a game of dominoes with twenty-six numbers to place together in infinite possibilities, to stack up in paragraphs and knock down in pages, the black dots of ink on the white tile of paper. Notice, too, how little color is in this world, how much depends upon green lettuce, the green rind and pulp of limes, a green dress. Little drops of poison. Paper cuts, each.

    I could go on and on. I could tell you that what might feel like an anarchic concatenation of voices in the book is actually one voice trying to find a way out of grief, I could tell you why I think this is a novel that cleverly dresses up anger and hurt to pretend they are sorrow, I could exhort and proclaim. But instead I will end with two paragraphs among the many I loved:
    He folded the letter, stuffed it into an envelope, and affixed postage. Saturn did not know her zip code or apartment number or the city where she had gone. He put her name on the envelope. Below her name he described the types of places where she might be: cities with rivers, streets with breezes, apartments with steps, rooms with canopies.

    Still, three weeks later, there was no reply -- just an itemized bill from the Postmaster General requesting reimbursements for maps of cities and waterways, for wind-velocity meters, and for all the man-hours spent climbing steps and peering into strangers' bedrooms.
    It could be a bill from a voracious reader, that. It could be a cry against a book that, if you have any heart at all, will make you cry.

    13 December 2005

    The Nine Muses

    The Nine Muses is a new anthology edited by Forrest Aguirre and Deborah Layne, published by Wheatland Press, that collects thirteen stories by writers who are women, plus an essay by Elizabeth Hand. One of the nice things about the book is that it presents work from writers associated with various sorts of writing, writers who have published in places such as Strange Horizons and Asimov's as well as writers who have published in Agni, Black Warrior Review, Ms., and Best Women's Erotica 2001. The quality of the stories varies as widely as the content, but I found four of the pieces to be notable and compelling.

    Ruth Nestvold's "Scraps of Eutopia" is a bit of a literary in-joke, a vehemently recursive alternate history, but it involves Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot, so it pleased me tremendously, because it is a fiercely smart story, and it sent me back to various biographies, literary histories, and encyclopedias to track down every reference I could find. The story is its own explanation, and trying to describe it makes me feel a bit like a Borges character, because to truly describe it I'd need to type the whole story here. But I can say that it builds off the idea of Virginia Woolf's Chloe and Olivia being real people, and their trip to Paris together. I simply love this paragraph:
    Now imagine if they hadn't gone. Chloe Ramsay never would have written her famed "Eutopia"; T.S. Eliot never would have been compelled to attack her; Virginia Woolf would have lacked much of her inspiration for A Room of One's Own; and Ernest Hemingway never would have written his celebrated story "Women Without Men".
    "Scraps of Eutopia" may only appeal to the lit geeks, but we've got to have something of our own now and then, and I am grateful for it.

    Sarah Totton's "The Teasewater Fire" is a story for everyone, a moving tale of a woman an earlier age who becomes pregnant out of wedlock and suffers a miscarriage, then begins constructing remarkably realistic animals that her brother is able to bring to life through some mix of magic and clockwork, until one day she makes a doll that looks, she thinks, like her son would have, had he lived to childhood. It is a story redolent of other tales and folk tales, of fairy tales and parables and myths and legends, but it is also a story of yearning, of grief, of the danger of loving when loss is inevitable, of the resolve to love and love again. The prose is careful, the pace slow, the echoes quiet. When I first read the story, I knew I liked it, but it wasn't for another few days, when its characters and situations kept returning to me, that I realized how much I admired what Totten has accomplished here -- how much depth she found in the situation, and how much grace she brought to the evocation of it.

    Ursula Pflug's "The Eyes of Horus" is, as can be expected with most of Pflug's work, utterly unique. It's the sort of thing I tend to call a batshit story, and though this term has not caught on as the latest literary, uh, movement, it's the only label that seems to fit so much of the sort of writing I love. I didn't find "The Eyes of Horus" as satisfying as the last batshit story I read from Pflug, "The Warden of Wyclyffe" in Leviathan 4, because it's a bit more unmoored and less disciplined, but the plethora of oddities and imageries is almost intoxicating at times.

    Strangely enough, the story that I most cherish in the book is the one that is not at all batshit; is, in fact, quite mundane: "The Day After Tomorrow" by Tamar Yellin. It's an extraordinarily skillful story, a story with barely a wasted word, and its disarming simplicity of statement provoked a feeling I rarely have: I wanted to have written it myself. It's a story about two people in the midst of their lives, and about a death that lies on the other side of the night, and about the moments we don't cherish enough while alive. It's the sort of thing so many aspiring literary writers aim for, the sort of thing that seems so easy -- the Chekhovian moments, the gestures that imply lifetimes, the details that conjure entire landscapes -- the sort of thing that, in seeking in, hundreds and thousands of writers have produced hundreds of thousands of dull, leaden, vapid stories. "The Day After Tomorrow" is not dull, not leaden, not vapid. It is gripping, terrifying, beautiful, and I can't resist quoting one nearly-random paragraph:
    Vistas of forgotten happiness, of lost love, open up for her out of the darkness, as though she had woken to find herself in the dream, as though the kiss were at last to be reclaimed, not snatched away at the moment of consummation. They stand in the alcove; they wear the faces of children. Years of longing are sated in their embrace. She has dreamed it many times, but this one is so real, she will hardly believe, when she wakes, that it didn't happen. She will ask of the morning air: Were you really here? It is an epiphany; a night-gift. Joy blossoms in the silence of the dark bedroom.
    (The best paragraph is the last, but it works best in the context of the story itself.)

    Underrated Writers

    At Syntax of Things, proprietors Jeff and TJ have put together a list of underrated writers based on a poll of various bookbloggers. Some people made lots of recommendations, but I find it difficult to figure out who is and who isn't underrated, so I pointed to just one writer: Tamar Yellin.

    12 December 2005

    A Conversation with Joe Hill

    Joe Hill has been quietly publishing short fiction for the past few years, with each new story causing more and more people to say, "Who is this guy?" The release this fall of his first collection, 20th Century Ghosts, brought a lot more attention, because the book included some excellent original stories and some other stories that had been published in obscure places. With all of these tales gathered together, it became clear to any reader that Joe Hill's work is thoughtful, subtle, vividly imaginative, and yet grounded in an emotional reality that can be remarkably moving, but not sentimental. The best of his tales are models of what can be accomplished with the short story form.

    You've been pegged at times as a horror writer, though clearly you've written all different sorts of fiction. Is there a label you like for the kind of writing you do?
    I was having dinner with some publishing people and one of them, an editor, asked me how I'd describe what I write. I said I mostly did two kinds of fiction, fantasy and magic realism. So he asked me what the difference was, and I said if I published a story in a genre magazine it was fantasy, but if I published it in a literary journal, it was magic realism. That's the difference.

    I read an essay about six years ago, by Bernard Malamud, "Why Fantasy?" Malamud basically made an argument that every fictional world is an artificial construction, a work of fantasy. The world in Norman Mailer's fiction isn't any more real or valid or "true" than the world Lewis Carroll wrote about. Mailer's characters only seem more real because they're more familiar. Whereas no one has ever run into a talking white rabbit. Malamud's position was that writers should be willing to use all the tools offered by the imagination, to explore the fantastic and the surreal. And his reasoning really freed me to be myself, to write about ghosts and inflatable children and murderous man-eating locusts.

    Before encountering Malamud's essay, why had you avoided fantasy elements in your writing? What caused that restriction for you?
    Fear. I was trying to play it safe. For example, I wrote a story called "The Entire Weight of Tacoma" about a man in late middle-age coming to terms with the idea that he's at least partly to blame for the disaster his grown-up daughter has made of her life. It was well-written, on a sentence-by-sentence level. It was psychologically convincing, I think. It was safe...it was a story I could show to any editor at any literary journal in the country, without fear of embarrassment. It had only one problem. It was boring. I didn't want to risk anything -- of myself. I was afraid to ask interesting questions because I was worried I hadn't lived enough to provide interesting answers.

    It's probably no accident that I've written all my best stuff since I became a dad. Having a kid -- that's taking a real risk. It probably helped me see that the kind of gambles I was afraid of taking in my fiction were really no big deal. What, is someone going to tell me I'm uncool because I wrote a ghost story? I am uncool. Fathers are the uncoolest people in the world.

    Were the writers you read primarily mainstream?
    I used to read everything. D.H. Lawrence. Elizabethan poetry. Modern short fiction collections about suburban malaise. But ever since I had my first son, there's been a definite swing in my reading habits. I have three boys now, and maybe it's all the testosterone in the house, but these days I mostly stick to manfiction. Elmore Leonard. Walter Mosley. James Ellroy.

    I don't read too much of what's commonly labeled horror fiction, or fantasy. I don't know why. I usually like it when I do. I just started Anansi Boys, and if I had the time, I'd sit around and read that all day.

    In the story note to "Pop Art", you write, "As patiently as I worked at [my mainstream] stories, few of them ever seemed satisfying to me. They refused to come to life, to surprise and excite, in the way of short stories by the likes of Ethan Canin, Richard Bausch or Tobias Wolff." What qualities make a story come to life for you?
    There's really two things, and they have to work in concert. They're like positive and negative on a battery, and without one, you've got no charge.

    Before I can get started on a story there has to be a hook, a concept that feels fresh and exciting. But it can't just be a clever idea for its own sake. Somewhere along the line I picked up the idea that a story has to be about more than just itself... that it has to ask the kind of questions that maybe can't be answered.

    So in "20th Century Ghost," the hook was this: what if someone loved the movies so much, they went on visiting their favorite theater even after they died? But along the way, the story wound up looking at some other, bigger, more meaningful questions. Like what happens to us after we die? And why are movies (and other works of art) so important to us anyway?

    So that's one thing I need, a hook I can use to snag some interesting thematic material. The other thing, though, is I need a main character with something interesting going on inside. A lot of the people I write about are not living the lives they want to be living. They've painted themselves into corners. They're their own worst enemies. They drive away the people who want to help them, burn bridges, blow off their futures. And if they do happen to be happy, or content, or lucky, then they're willing to do awful things to stay that way. I don't mean to say that all my characters are anti-heroes, or villains. That's a kind of black-and-white thinking I try to avoid. I mean they're in jeopardy. I like to write about people who are morally or spiritually or psychologically adrift, because right from the start I'm rooting for them to make themselves well, to find their way out of the hole they've dug for themselves. Some of them don't, but I always hope.

    How did you go about finding markets for your stories? Did you have any trouble placing them?
    For a long time I couldn't sell a story to save my life. I was lucky to manage one story acceptance a year. But there's been a steady shift ever since I wrote "20th Century Ghost" about four years ago. I wrote it very quickly. Everything just dropped into place. And right from the start, it seemed to work in some way a lot of my other stuff didn't.

    "Ghost" sold the third place I sent it -- to a lit. magazine, The High Plains Literary Review. I can't remember what I wrote right after it. "You Will Hear The Locust Sing," I think. And that sold quickly as well.

    When I was writing more mainstream stuff, I saw a lot of warm, supportive, personal rejections. Editors liked my stories, but something was missing. I wasn't excited about them, that's what was missing. Those mainstream stories were muscle cars with no fuel in the tank. The fantasy element was a hit of high octane. So lately it's become much easier to place my stories. With a little luck, hopefully I can continue to build on the good things that have come my way in the last couple years.

    What sort of high octane does fantasy add to your writing?
    On a practical level, it tends to create situation. Fantasy involves asking an interesting what-if. What if you went to a movie, and someone sat down next to you and started whispering to you, and then you realized the person talking to you was dead? That you were being whispered to by a ghost? Now you've got somewhere to go. You need to answer that question.

    On an emotional level, introducing an element of fantasy helps to remind me what I'm doing. That I'm sitting down to perform an act of make-believe. Right from the start I have to put any idea of playing it safe out of my head. I try always to take some big leap of the imagination on the very first page. I'm either telling you something incredible -- "when I was in junior high, my best friend was an inflatable boy" -- or I'm putting the main character in terrible, unlikely danger. Like at the beginning of "The Black Phone," when the kidnapper sprays John Finney in the face with a can of wasp poison. Either way, we're putting the pedal down and leaving normal behind as quickly as possible.

    How did the collection come about?
    My agent said it would be a hard sell and he was right. The conventional wisdom is that there isn't any kind of market for a first book of stories. That you can only launch a writer with a novel. Part of me questions that, especially when you're talking about short stories of the supernatural. Kelly Link did pretty well with Stranger Things Happen. And Clive Barker made out okay with Books of Blood.

    Anyway, 20th Century Ghosts was turned down by all of the big mainstream publishers. Quickly. But it was a different story on the small press level. Pete Crowther at PS Publishing had a look, and really liked it, came on with a lot of enthusiasm. As a writer of surreal and fantastic tales himself, he just responded to what was going on in the stories. But every small press editor who looked at it -- Richard Chizmar, Bill Schafer, Paul Miller -- responded with interest and excitement. They're a remarkable bunch... I'd throw Kelly Link and Gavin Grant in there too. They play an entirely different game than the editors at the big publishing houses. The guys with the small presses, they get excited about a book and they want to publish it. They don't stop to think how much money they're going to lose.

    How did you go about organizing the contents of the collection?
    Well, another thing I picked up while poring over Malamud's essays is his idea that a collection should be a single, unified, artistic statement, just like a novel...not an archive of each and every story you've written in however many years. I was choosy about what I put in. And I tried to make sure that each story pointed to the story that followed it, in some way. So "Pop Art" is about an inflatable boy, an eleven-year-old kid made out of plastic and filled with air. He's hated and feared and lonely, the ultimate outsider. The story after it is "You Will Hear The Locust Sing" about another outsider, a greasy, abused loner who turns into a man-eating insect out of a 1950s giant bug movie. There are a lot of upsetting father issues in "Locust" and so the story after it is "Abraham's Boys," which is about the difficult relationship between Van Helsing and his two teenage sons.

    Because most of the stories had been previously published, there wasn't a whole lot of editing to do. The stories pretty much were what they were.

    I did do some more work on the collection, though, after Pete accepted it for publication. "The Cape" was a last minute add, something I wrote a few months before the book went to press. "Scheherazade's Typewriter," the hidden story, also went in relatively late, although the story itself was over two years old. "Typewriter" was originally twenty-five pages long, and I considered it a failure, a story that didn't do any of the things I wanted it to do. It went in a drawer but I never forget about it. Then, a few months after I sold the book, I tried rewriting "Scheherazade's Typewriter" from scratch. I didn't even reread my first draft, just worked from memory. And I was able to polish the story off in only five pages and this time it felt right.

    Are there any plans for a U.S. release?
    I don't know. It isn't too hard to get a copy over here if you want one. You can find the book at -- koff koff -- Amazon UK, Shocklines, or order straight from the PS website. If Pete sells out, that'll be the time to think about another, possibly American edition.

    11 December 2005

    To Link is Divine

    Cleaning out the bookmarks...
    • Meghan McCarron dared to dive into the treacherous waters of the question "Why aren't more women published in SF magazines?", and the results were, as she says, more a brainstorming session than a debate.

    • Dan Green on Kafka and detective novels.

    • By the way, I'm currently reading the new Kafka biography that Dan references in his post (via Steve Mitchelmore), and it's easily the best literary biography I've read since Hermione Lee's bio of Virginia Woolf. It's so much more than just a chronicle of the events of Kafka's life -- it weaves in fascinating discussions of all sorts of different things, from the various uses and meanings of personal correspondence through the ages to how the advent of the telephone affected people's relationships, to previous critics' interpretations of Kafka's relations with his family and friends and lovers to the exact circumstances of Kafka's daily life. Extraordinary, and remarkably gripping for a book so full of data.

    • Speaking of things giving me pleasure these days, you do know about the new Dresden Dolls DVD, right? Christopher Lydon MCs it. The real Christopher Lydon. That's not the best part, though. The best part might just be the drumming on the song "Half Jack". Or the video for "Coin-Operated Boy" (yes, I know it's online, but I don't have a fast connection, so never watched it till I got the DVD). Anyway, I owe Sonya Taaffe for a lot of things, but especially for introducing me to The Dresden Dolls, a great source of (admittedly perverse) (and often coin-operated) joy. (And they have a blog.)

    • (Book deal of the week: You can own But I Digress: The Exploitation of Parentheses in English Printed Verse for only $121!) (Follow that link!) (While supplies last!) (Buy copies for your entire family!)

    • Kameron Hurley pointed to this article about a gallery in England removing a picture of a nude man and replacing it with a picture of a nude woman because they'd gotten too many complaints about a nude man being such a tasteless thing to display. Huh. I have an almost-lifesize painting of a nude man (full frontal) hanging quite prominently in my apartment, a birthday gift from the painter (she knew I liked the painting, and she had just broken up with the guy who was her model, so instead of burning the painting she gave it to me, which I thought was both reasonable and generous). It's been there for about four years, and in that time has provoked some interesting comments, but I have yet to be asked to replace it with a woman. Maybe because a few feet away hangs a poster of Duchamp's Mona Lisa...

    • Glenn Hirshberg on Denis Johnson's "Emergency".

    • Nick Mamatas on short story collections: "In the genre model, one writes a bunch of short stories and sells them to small publications that seem large only because genre authors live at the bottom of deep wells. Then one writes a novel, and then another, and another, and they come out every year or every six months and they generally all stink because one writes in the same way one makes McDonald's toadburgers, and then one gets famous (because people love to put diseased shit in their mouths) and then one comes out with a collection of short fiction for one's fans."

    • "A Myth of Innocence" by Louis Gluck.

    • Coalescent on Tiptree.

    • Jonathan Stahan's favorite short stories of 2005 (My only big disagreements, at least among the stories I've so far read, are that I would have picked Joe Hill's "My Father's Masks" over "The Cape", and I think "There's a Hole in the City" by Rick Bowes absolutely belongs on any best of the year list. But that's my personal list, not Jonathan's. And you'll hear more about mine sometime in January, because I have to write an article about the year's short fiction for Vector. (See Niall, I haven't forgotten!)

    • Undead in Appalachia? (Elizabethan English, that is.)

    • The Worst Album Covers of All Time. (via Buzzwords Blog)

    • Stay tuned, kids: Barring strange connection troubles or something, tomorrow I'll be posting an interview with Joe Hill.

    09 December 2005

    Robert Sheckley (1928-2005)

    The news of Robert Sheckley's death is sad, indeed. Sheckley's work brought so much laughter, so much joy for so long.

    Other people will have much more to say than I, because Sheckley's career was a long one, and his influence tremendous. The man is gone, but his stories remain, and they can continue to make us smile and chuckle and think.

    08 December 2005

    Europeana by Patrik Ourednik

    There are times when Europeana: A Brief History Of The Twentieth Century sounds oddly like something a bright-but-confused student would write in a high school class about world history. There are other times when it sounds like Vonnegut, others when it sounds like David Markson, and still others when it sounds like the sort of thing someone might ramble after waking up from a nightmare. Except so often the nightmare is true. Except so often truth is just a portrayal, a nightmare of itself.

    Patrik Ourednik was born in Prague but has lived in France since 1984. We should not be surprised, then, that the items he returns to repeatedly in Europeana involve Communists and Nazis, neither of whom he much likes. The narrative also swings back to World War I, because it was supposed to end all wars, and to ideas of eugenics and perfection, religion and belief, science and progress. For instance, this passage from the beginning:
    Some historians subsequently said that the twentieth century actually started in 1914, when war broke out, because it was the first war in history in which so many countries took part, in which so many people died and in which airships and airplanes flew and bombarded the rear and towns and civilians, and submarines sunk ships and artillery could lob shells ten or twelve kilometers. And the Germans invented gas and the English invented tanks and scientists discovered isotopes and the general theory of relativity, according to which nothing was metaphysical, but relative. And when the Senegalese fusiliers first saw an airplane they thought it was a tame bird and one of the Sengalese soldiers cut a lump of flesh from a dead horse and threw it as far as he could in order to lure it away. And the soldiers wore green and camouflage uniforms because they did not want the enemy to see them, which was modern at the time because in previous wars soldiers had worn brightly-colored uniforms in order to be visible from afar. And airships and airplanes flew through the sky and the horses were terribly frightened. And writers and poets endeavored to find ways of expressing it best and in 1916 they invented Dadaism because everything seemed crazy to them. And in Russia they invented a revolution. And the soldiers wore around their neck or wrist a tag with their name and the number of their regiment to indicate who was who, and where to send a telegram of condolences, but if the explosion tore off their head or arm and the tag was lost, the military command would announce that they were unknown soliders, and in most capital cities they instituted an eternal flame lest they be forgotten, because fire preserves the memory of something long past. And the fallen French measured 2,681 kilometers, the fallen English, 1,547 kilometers, and the fallen Germans, 3,010 kilometers, taking the average length of a corpse as 172 meters.
    Yes, there are 122 pages of that. The book is broken into sections of roughly even paragraphs, all about a page or a page and a half long, and all written in the headlong style of the above. The remarkable thing about the book is its structure: so much of the above gets returned to, but with new twists, different perspectives and details, so that the writing gains a kind of music through repetition and revision. Gerald Turner's translation is remarkable for finding an idiom to convey such wit and weirdness without letting it all sound stupid and pointless.

    An excerpt from the book on the back cover says it is "from the novel" -- it is interesting to think of Europeana as a novel, because it only fits the most open definition of that form. Yet it would be dangerous to call this nonfiction, because it is so vehemently subjective. There are no footnotes or source notes, no attempt at a systematic representation of history -- no, this is history as it unfolds in a mind, facts and fancies cobbled together in a single consciousness, the echo of a century stuttered by an inner voice. I'm perfectly comfortable with the book as a novel, because the narrative voice conveyed a character to me. As I read, I kept imagining an old man sitting alone in a dusty little apartment full of books, an insomniac nattering on and on to himself like Hamm in Beckett's Endgame. History requires more than accumulation, it needs nuance and perspective, but what we each do to history in our minds and imaginations is the real subject of Europeana, and such a subject is, like the twentieth century, both terrifying and absurd.

    07 December 2005

    Holiday Gifts

    Look no farther than the Rain Taxi 10th Anniversary Charity Auction to find remarkable gifts for the booklovers in your life. Signed and rare editions by everyone from M.T. Anderson to C.D. Wright.

    (I looked through the list and kept saying, "Omigod! Omigod! Omigod!" until my cat came over, rubbed against my leg, and asked me if there was any particular reason I'd become religious.)

    Workshop Hacks

    While there are things I agree with in the latest attack on writing workshops, the author, Sam Sacks, builds his argument from some strange assumptions. First, he assumes that Best New American Voices 2006 edited by Jane Smiley is a representative selection of the best work from the best workshops in the U.S. He assumes that people who enter writing workshops aspire to be the best writers who ever lived. He assumes that great writers can be great teachers and poor writers are inevitably therefore poor teachers. He assumes great writers have enlightening wisdom to impart to young writers. He assumes that his experiences are typical.

    All of these assumptions are at least weak, if not flat-out false, many of them for multiple reasons.

    There are two basic values to good writing workshops in my experience: they teach people to pay closer attention to what they read, and they give them ways to think about what they write. Any loftier claims are horse effluent. The only real way to learn to write is to write and keep writing and read and keep reading. There aren't any great secrets held by a wise secret cabal that will help anybody become a better writer.

    I was talking with a friend, a fine writer with an MFA, about another writer, a young one who has gotten some attention and who has never, as far as we know, been in any sort of writing workshop. "In five years," my friend said, "X will probably be a good writer, but at the moment s/he doesn't really know how to structure a story. That's where a workshop could help. The talent's there, the sensitivity to language, but some feedback on how stories like X's work and some ideas of other ways to make them work would be helpful."

    Workshops provide time and impetus to write, which can be invaluable. They also provide a built-in audience, which is a mixed blessing. What Sam Sacks has to say about the much-(and justly-)maligned "workshop story" is accurate and well said, but the reason such stories pop up in workshops all the time is that they reduce the negative criticism by being predictable and mediocre. Certainly, too many of these stories get published, and the cause of that may be workshop indoctrination, but that's more a problem of editors without any taste, skill, or individuality than it is a problem of writers or workshops.

    Not all workshops are alike, either. I liked an approach I heard once from the playwright Mac Wellman: he instructed students to write the worst possible things they could. The results, he said, were excellent. He'd given his students permission to write terribly -- indeed, commanded them to do so -- and thus circumvented many problems of standard workshops, got some interesting results, and thought the students learned a lot.

    One of the more common weaknesses I've seen in workshops is that students are too young and have spent their entire adult lives (if they have such lives yet) in academia, so their general knowledge of the world is of ivy-covered professors in ivy-covered halls. It's remarkable what one or two years in the real world will do for a writer. I've just finished being in a screenwriting workshop with people of all different ages and experiences, and some of them wrote truly interesting, innovative, entertaining scripts, because, lo and behold, they actually had things to write about: joys and terrors, passions and wounds.

    The proliferation of workshops is not going to kill American literature, because the majority of workshops are not represented in elitist dullness like the Best New Voices books (actually, I remember reading some pretty good stories in the volume Charles Baxter edited), and many workshops serve a perfectly useful purpose of increasing people's knowledge of how hard it is to write well. I'd bet more people leave workshops -- even bad workshops -- with a better appreciation for what they read than leave workshops determined to be professional writers. There's certainly nothing wrong with that. There are plenty of good writers out there, and what we need now more than anything are good readers.

    06 December 2005

    Reviews Elsewhere

    I just posted a review of Paul Park's fine new novel, A Princess of Roumania, at MetaxuCafe. I could cross-post, and probably will with future Metaxu posts, but I like the site and want to send some traffic over there...

    Speaking of reviews, over at The Quarterly Conversation there's quite a negative one of one of my favorite novels of this year, Lydia Millet's Oh Pure and Radiant Heart. Of course, I think the reviewer's wrong, but he makes his case well, and I can certainly see the book hitting some people as it did him. Nonetheless, Millet's novel has made Best of the Year lists at (so far) about eight different places, including the science fiction, fantasy, and horror list at the St. Louis Dispatch, alongside, among others, Neil Gaiman, George R.R. Martin, and Lucius Shepard. With accolades like that going around, it's good to have some negative reviews to keep things in perspective. After all, there's somebody to hate just about everything...

    05 December 2005

    Kore-eda Hirokazu

    A secret agent in a Mumpsimus bureau outside Tokyo brought the films of Kore-eda Hirokazu to our attention, and we here at Mumpsimus Central have now screened the three available in the U.S. with delight and admiration.

    Kore-eda began as a documentary filmmaker for television, and some of this background is apparent in the features he has made, particularly After Life, where characters who have died are given the opportunity to keep one memory with them for eternity. Many scenes are filmed with a hand-held camera, and these scenes alternate with static shots of various characters telling their memories and trying to sort through the lives they are about to forget. (Ten of these characters are, reportedly, not actors, but rather ordinary people interviewed as if for a documentary.) It is a touching and surprising film, one that it is difficult to describe without making it sound more trivial or sentimental than it is.

    Before After Life, Kore-eda made Maborosi, his least documentary-like feature in its careful composition of images and its meditative pace. Kore-eda's worldview sometimes reminds me of Tarkovsky, but Maborosi is most obviously Tarkovskian in its pacing -- the camera dwells on every scene, letting the viewer's eye take in detail after detail. The film is about grief and loss, and the pacing reflects the way grief stretches the moments of each day into languid sadness. The camera is usually still, portraying each moment with as much objectivity as possible. In the few scenes where the camera moves, the effect is startling and vivid. The setting helps, as well. Maborosi begins in Osaka, then, after the husband of the lead character, Yumiko, apparently kills himself, Yumiko lets herself be married to a man in a fishing village on the coast of the Sea of Japan, and moves there with her young son. The setting is bleakly beautiful, with open stretches of landscape that contrast with the claustrophobic interiors of Osaka.

    The most recent Kore-eda film available in the U.S. is Nobody Knows, the story of four children left to fend for themselves in a Tokyo apartment when their mother abandons them. The situation is not entirely fictional -- such a thing did happen in the 1980s, but Kore-eda wrote his script from only the bare essentials of that event. Nobody Knows verges on being cinema verite: many scenes were improvised, and the entire movie was shot over the course of a year so that the young actors would age appropriately. The effect is subtle and unsettling. What most impressed me about the film was its willingness to focus on the present moments and the actions of the characters -- we never find out exactly why the mother leaves, nor why she stays away. The ending is ambiguous. The backgrounds and motivations of many of the characters are only hinted at. Past and future cease to exist. Why do landlords and neighbors do nothing for these children? The questions are left to us. I kept wondering as I watched what Hollywood would have done with such a story -- so many more loose ends would be tied up, so many actions explained, so much of the mystery that makes the movie effective and unsentimental would be sacrificed to the false god of the mass audience.

    (Between After Life and Nobody Knows, Kore-eda made Distance, a film that is not currently available in the U.S., unfortunately, but that sounds fascinating, and that Kore-eda has said creates a kind of separation between his earlier films and Nobody Knows. With any luck, it will find [broader] distribution in the U.S. eventually. Update 12/06/05: Jim Flannery just let me know that a region 0/NTSC/English-subtitled DVD of Distance is available via HKFlix, a site I was not aware of until now. Thanks, Jim!)

    Of the three films, I found After Life to be the most deeply affecting, the movie where all the qualities I value in Kore-eda's work are on display: the humanity, the eye for evocative detail, the painterly images, the subtlety of expression, the thoughtfulness and unobtrusive philosophizing. The central premise allows it to be the film with the most emotional range. Nobody Knows is perhaps the most gripping of the films, but it is also the bleakest, the most painful, the one that finds the least redemption in life. Maborosi would be a difficult movie for an impatient viewer, as it is sometimes confusing and always so deliberately paced as to seem more like a still than a motion picture, but it is also so beautifully filmed and carefully constructed as to be overwhelming in the end -- it is worth struggling through the inevitable confusion and restlessness that result in the first half hour to be able to fully appreciate the last half hour. I don't particularly want to rate each film against the other, though, because each is such an individual work, and such a beautiful experience of its own.

    Some Kore-eda links:

    MetaxuCafe

    Bud Parr (of Chekhov's Mistress) has created a new clearinghouse for litblogs, MetaxuCafe. It aggregates posts and headlines from members, lets members post original posts, offers a forum for people to talk about books and blogging, and is really quite beautifully designed. It's a new endeavor, so I'm sure various things will change in the coming weeks and months, but already more than 50 bloggers have signed on as members, including me. Membership is open to anybody who wants in and runs a blog about books that has an RSS or Atom feed. I've already discovered lots of blogs I didn't know about before, and some good discussions have begun in the forum.

    04 December 2005

    Getting the Links Out

    • The NY Times posted a new profile of one of my favorite American playwrights, Christopher Durang, who is apparently more given to spirituality than might be expected of the author of "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You" ("He was a bad boy," Sister Mary says of one child. "Some of them should be left on the side of a hill to die, and he was one.")

    • Ron Silliman: "There is a horror at the heart of Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire that comes far closer to [What's Eating Gilbert] Grape & [Spanking the] Monkey than it does to LOTR or Star Wars. That horror is the secret & heart of this film." Well, that's going a bit far, but it was certainly nice that the movie wasn't as long as the book.

    • Ron Silliman: "Perhaps nothing could be further from the swell of extras, computer-generated effects & dizzying pace of Harry Potter than Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring..." Very few films of the last five years have impressed me as much as Spring, Summer..., and Silliman offers a good overview of why.

    • Marjorie Perloff on Paul Celan: "Celan’s life was nothing if not tragic, but the difficulty with the ubiquitous designation 'Holocaust poet' is that its thematic import has eclipsed the role of sound, rhythm, tone, and spatial form in the lyric of this particular poet." (Celan is my favorite poet of the 20th century, so I have probably offered various links to his work before, but for anyone new to his work, this multilingual page has good links, and The Academy of American Poets offers a brief overview of his work.)

    • "College, Reading, and the Internet"

    • Tingle Alley: "A Feast for Crows has to be the most nippletastic book I've read since, oh, Candy. It felt like not a page went by that a pair wasn't being pinched, suckled, eyed, prized, fondled, lopped off (seriously) or otherwise palpated. Boys' nipples, girls' nipples, big brown nipples, fulsome nipples, nipples like black diamonds, lactating nipples, male pepperoni-style nipples. All kinds of nipples. It makes me wonder if a retread of Lord of the Rings isn't in order, with 100% more detail on the hobbit nipples."

    • Hal Duncan writes in his inimitable way about a discussion that I hadn't previously been interested in:
      Two small subsets of the field may live by their words, creating Hard SF or High Fantasy that do exemplify the warring aesthetics of Rationalism and Romanticism -- probably par excellence. But if you look around the drunken wedding party, ignore the two old maids sitting in their corners, that dusty old duality looks pretty irrelevant. I've said it before and I'll say it again: it's fucking Modernism. Pulp Modernism, cheap, populist, balls-to-the-wall-and-entertaining-as-fuck Modernism, but still Modernism. We use mimesis on the one hand, fantasy on the other. We rationalise magic and romanticise science. We combine the exotic and the mundane. We experiment with literary conventions. This isn't the fiction of science; it's the science of fiction. We take metaphoric conceits, fantastic ideas, and we put them to the test with literature as the laboratory. Of course, when we get good results, we do have a tendency to go into mass production mode, churning out dodgy copies from the cheapest of materials for a consumerist market that loves our new toys for a few days before abandoning them for the next shiny doohicky... but, hey, that Big Corporate Structure keeps the R & D department going so I'm not complaining.
    • The Little Professor on the inflation and deflation of literary texts.

    • I have never advocated putting babies on spikes. Well, not exactly. The rest is true. And I will release my photos of Nick Mamatas with a mandolin and daisies in his hair for the right price...

    • Merriam-Webster's Open Dictionary. (via Language Log)

    • Nalo Hopkinson needs a new computer, so she's selling a bunch of books. I'm very fond of both Mojo: Conjure Stories and Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora, so can recommend them without hesitation. I've not read any of Hopkinson's novels, and don't think I even own any, but I've liked the short stories I've read, and so should probably get myself one of her novels, so she can have a machine on which to write more... (via Cheryl)