28 March 2006

Subscribe to Books!

Interesting news from Soft Skull Press -- they're starting a subscription program. They're starting with a poetry subscription for $50, which is a good savings off the cover price of the books. To follow are subscriptions for Fiction, Pop Culture, Graphic Novels, and Queer Studies (what I want to know is: when can I subscribe to Graphic Queer Pop Fiction?). It's sort of like Book-of-the-Month Club, except it's not, because you know what you're getting for the whole year and it's all from one very good independent publisher. (Soft Skull published, among many other things, Lydia Millet's Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, among my favorites of last year.)

A publisher offering a subscription to its books, or a certain line of its books, is not an entirely new idea -- the history of publishing has various forms of subscriptions for books, and there are contemporary examples such as AK Press's Friends program -- though I do imagine it could add considerable administrative hassles (Richard Nash of Soft Skull wonders, "Will keeping track of these subscriptions be a nightmare, as if we were trying to run a magazine on top of a publisher? By extension, will our interns hate me?").

There are lots of small press publishers that might be able to benefit from subscription programs (if they could work out the details), and I'll be curious to see if anybody becomes inspired by Soft Skull's example -- there are actually quite a few publishers that would be worth subscribing to, and such a program would be a good way for authors who might otherwise have trouble getting noticed to find an audience.

27 March 2006

New Strange Horizons

The latest issue of Strange Horizons has been posted, and it includes new fiction by E.L. Chen, poetry by Bruce Boston, an interview with Karen Traviss by Cheryl Morgan, reviews of various sorts (one per day), and a pretentious, academic, abstract column by me called "Do Matchmakers Dream of Estrogen Sheep?".

25 March 2006

Why I Am Still Alive

Once you are not disillusioned, you need to take yourself out back and shoot yourself in the head.

--Jeff VanderMeer's Evil Monkey

23 March 2006


Some links, most of them stolen from other places, though I can't remember where, other than from Ed this morning:

22 March 2006

Laird Hunt on "Nonrealist Fiction"

Laird Hunt is a novelist, former United Nations press officer, and current faculty member at the University of Denver. His novels include The Impossibly, Indiana, Indiana, and the forthcoming The Exquisite. His work has appeared in Conjunctions, Ploughshares, McSweeney's, and Fence. He has lived in Singapore, Tokyo, London, The Hague, and Paris, where he studied at The Sorbonne. Hunt holds an MFA in Writing and Poetics from Naropa University, as well as a black belt in tae kwon do. He and his wife, the poet Eleni Sikelianos, and daughter, the child Eva Grace Sikelianos Hunt, live in Boulder, Colorado, USA.

What follows is the text of a presentation Laird Hunt gave at the 2006 AWP Conference on the "Nonrealistic Fiction" panel I was on with Jeff VanderMeer, Kelly Link, and Brian Evenson. Thanks to Laird for letting me reprint it here.

At the center of Eric Chevillard's 1990 novel Palafox is an eponymous creature who changes shape almost as quickly as the researchers studying his case can describe him. Variously reptile, bird, insect, mammal, none, or all of these things, Palafox baffles description but excites the highest curiosity -- for a time at least -- on the part of the hoard of specialists and interested parties who seek to pin him down. At novel's end, Palafox, who launched his brief existence by pecking his way out of an egg on someone's breakfast table, hastens his own end by cheerfully tearing things around him to shreds. His entourage, horror struck, briefly consider cooking him, disemboweling him, then decide to have him stuffed.

If I start these remarks on nonrealist or irrealist or exploratory or experimental or speculative or just plain innovative literature, by referencing Chevillard's energetic treatise on the wonders and perils of the resolutely/helplessly protean, it is not because in it we may read a metaphorical instancing of the recurrent rise and fall of nonrealist or irrealist or weird literature in the mainstream media and major publishing houses, but also because it might help lay the groundwork for the pair of questions my scattershot use of nomenclature is meant to point to. What is it, this thing that is or isn't getting published, that is or isn't getting its due, that may or may not be better suited than what it isn't to help us unpack and sort out our ontologies, and, what should we call it? I pose the questions in that order, even though I suspect that to do so may be to invert their most common de facto ordering. Indeed, I'm sure many here have heard some less abstracted version of the following, which I would propose is very nearly as representative of exchanges in so-called avant-garde circles as it is of exchanges in the slush pile room at major publishing houses or on the killing floor of major review outlets.

What shall we call this curious thing?

Let's call it experimental/speculative/fabulist/hybrid/cross-genre/

Ah, good, then it must be wonderful.

Or, oh, no! it must be awful.

Or simply, yawn.

Regardless, whatever the thing so-labeled is it gets seen through the fizz of pre-cooked and possibly mis-applied terminology, which is to say, like Palafox, not seen very clearly, or at all. This of course can cause all sorts of problems -- confirmed experimentalists celebrate work that is experimental in label only and traditionalists condemn work as experimental that, if it were carefully considered, in fact differs only quite superficially from the work they might be predisposed to favor. Writing is read and judged according to how neatly it fits its wrapper rather than how insistently a fresh and perhaps evolving response to it is required. This variety of dilemma of course becomes more acute when questions of what gets effectively published and what gets seriously read and reviewed come into play.

We certainly can't do without labels -- appropriately applied they can be terrifically helpful -- but in the midst of an envelope of space-time in which the experimental/anti-experimental debate has become more than a bit shrill (experimental at the moment is either an insult or a rallying cry), it might be wise, at least until the obfuscating dust has been swept away, to adopt a read first name later approach to appraising texts. Because in the meantime, there it sits, this experimental or pomo or surreal or whatever thing, glowering and almost invisible under the masking agents of its probably ill-fitting label, inviting us to take a crack, at some point, at determining what it is.

A large part of the trouble of course in determining just what exactly we are dealing with when we encounter interesting nonrealist fiction is that as with the ever-morphing Palafox, the non-traditional work we find ourselves confronted with when we lift off the labels stands a good chance of being unlike the last work, or last several works, we've read. And such writing, lacking accurate ready-made analogues, is difficult to describe. Nor is it desirable that it be easy. What is wonderful, of course, about writing that defies easy description and tends to baffle broad-stroke categorization and that demands case by case articulation is that readers who grapple with it are obliged to adjust their approach to reading, to adopt new strategies, to shake off whatever dust has settled on the pathways leading from one end to the other of their minds so that fiction, which too much same old thing has frozen, can again growl and click and shimmer and prance.

It is in the appraisal of this thing as it capers or stomps around before us that we may begin to apprehend it, to decide how and where it overlaps with other works we've encountered and in what ways it stands apart. I would propose that there is just enough confusion/laziness in the conversation about what we mean when we talk about nonrealist writing to make useful the evocation of the importance of energetic reading that focuses on the text in question rather than, say, the reputation of its writer, or the magazine or press where it was published. To read under such circumstances could be seen as an interrogative analog to Gertrude Stein's favored "natural" counting -- instead of 1,2,3 we have 1,1,1, with one being different each time. What is this? we ask with ever-shifting emphasis and understanding as we move through a text. A chicken? A bass? A gila monster? A centipede? A Palafox?

I've used the term nonrealist several times, and it is in the description of this panel, but in the long run it seems to me that no favors get done by puffing up the division between realist and all the other varieties of fictional output, not to mention the concomitant privileging of a set of techniques that haven't been around all that long and don't perhaps exert quite as much influence as we often give them credit for. I know that I, for one, have rarely thought of myself as reacting in my work to realism -- to calcification, yes, to artificial boundaries, yes, to unhelpful proscriptions, yes -- but to realism, no. I suspect most people here can confirm from experience that formal stagnation is possible with any kind of writing -- we've all read worn-out exploratory/innovative fiction. This is part of the reason why, though I am in favor of the room to maneuver it offers, I am ultimately uncomfortable with the term nonrealist and find myself taken by the possibilities of the title of the anthology Omnidawn has just put out -- ParaSpheres -- which means, if I read it correctly, beyond the bounds, any bounds, not just those set by the current arbiters of mainstream cultural significance. It seems to me that all writing that has a pulse, that demands individual appraisal, that is as likely to bite you as it is to kiss you, is paraspheric. And that's the kind of protean, brand-spanking-new-for-now category I'd like to live my reading and writing life in.

21 March 2006

Recent Fiction at Strange Horizons

I realized last year that I don't have a love/hate relationship with the fiction at Strange Horizons so much as a like/indifference relationship with it. A number of stories there last year interested me in some way or another, but only one or two fully captured my imagination and attention (particularly Douglas Lain's "A Coffee Cup/Alien Invasion Story"), while many others were not stories I thought were particularly bad, they just weren't anything I remembered more than five minutes after reading them.

This is a very different relationship from the one I have with magazines like F&SF or (the now defunct) SciFiction, where usually a few stories each year blow me away, and a bunch of others make me wonder what the editor was smoking when they accepted them.

All of which is preamble for what I want to say, which is: After what seemed to me a particularly dull start to the year, Strange Horizons has published a number of good-to-excellent stories in the past few weeks, especially "The Desires of Houses" by Haddayr Copley-Woods, "Ignis Fatuus" by Eliani Torres, and "The Flying Woman" by Meghan McCarron. (Joanne Merriam's "The Purple Hippopotamus Wading Pool" is affecting and well written, but it seemed to me to be a story about how women who cheat on their husbands will, or should, be punished and degraded horribly, a position I find troubling, though certainly not every reader will see the story this way, or mind.)

"The Desires of Houses" is a light and clever story that stands just fine on its own; saying anything other than "it works" would be to say too much, but it's rare that a one-joke story like this one works quite so well -- such a story is so much harder to write than it seems, because every word and phrase has to be pitched just right.

I read "Ignis Fatuus" once, then immediately read it again, because there's so much going on in it, and the opening is so deceptive, that one reading just doesn't do it justice. What begins as a seemingly mundane bit of domestic erotica becomes a science fiction story, yet it never loses sight of where and how it began. A tremendous amount of backstory is hinted at and revealed with deft skill, both the backstory of the future world itself and of the main characters. The writing is stylish but not ostentatious, there's a strong voice to the narration, but the events move forward swiftly -- swiftly enough that a second reading reveals how much can be missed in the first reading. This is easily one of the best stories I've read from 2006 so far.

"The Flying Woman" made me laugh a few times, which I always appreciate, but the emotions at the end are complex, a mix of sadness and nostalgia and wistfulness. The fragmentary, collage-like structure of the story reinforces the idea of it all being both memory and myth, half dream and half reality, a grab-bag full of yearnings. Many of the stories Strange Horizons publishes reach for this kind of bittersweet emotional territory, and most of them end up seeming not quite on the mark, a bit anemic or mannered, but "The Flying Woman" has enough layers and enough substance that it captures a lot within a relatively short space. It's a story that relies quite a bit on the quirkiness of its narrative voice, but it doesn't only rely on that -- the voice is buttressed by a thoughtful structure, substantive events, and about as much complexity of character as can be hoped for in a story of this length.

Taking Pains

From On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner:
In conversation with a slightly older colleague at the University of California at Chico, where I was teaching at the time, I suggested that the two of us do an anthology of fiction including (as anthologies did not then do and most anthologies do not do now) not only short stories but also other forms -- fables, tales, yarns, sketches, etc. The result was The Forms of Fiction, a book (now long out of print and almost impossible to get a hold of) that provided a close analysis of the narratives we included. A more important result, for me, was that I learned about taking pains. Lennis Dunlap, my collaborator, was and remains one of the most infuriatingly stubborn perfectionists I have ever known. Night after night for two full years we would work for five, six, seven hours on what sometimes added up to three or four sentences. He drove me crazy, and he wasn't so kind to himself, either: often we had to stop because the stress of working with a young man as impatient as I was would give Lennis a histamine headache. Gradually I came to feel as unwilling as he was to let a sentence stand if the meaning was not as unambiguously visible as a grizzly bear in a brightly lit kitchen. I discovered what every good writer knows, that getting down one's exact meaning helps one to discover what one means. Looking back now at our writing in The Forms of Fiction, I find the style overly cautious, a bit too tight. (Sometimes saying a thing twice is a good idea.) But that painful two years -- the midnight fights and sometimes the shock of joy we would both experience when the right choice of words made us grasp the idea that had until that instant teased and eluded us -- showed me what was wrong with my fiction.

Needless to say, since I was writing fiction throughout this period, and since Lennis Dunlap has a mind worth consulting, from time to time I showed him my own fiction. He went over it with the same eye for detail he gave to our work on other people's writing, and though I cannot say he wasn't helpful, I soon learned the limits of even the best advice. Coming from Tennessee, he did not speak the same English I speak, or know the same kinds of people, or interpret life experiences in quite the same ways I do. When he suggested changes and I accepted his suggestions, the story almost invariably went wrong. What I learned from him, in short, is that a writer must take infinite pains -- if he writes only one great story in his life, that is better than writing a hundred bad ones -- and that finally the pains the writer takes must be his own.
William Gass, speaking of Gardner, in "The Sound and Fury Over Fiction" by Stephen Singular, The New York Times Magazine, 7/8/79, included in Conversations with John Gardner:
John should revise more, but he doesn't. His greatest weaknesses are his glibness and his preachiness, and his problem is that of almost any writer who has gained some popularity. That popularity is almost invariably based on what is weakest in the writer's work, and then the tendency is for the writer to lean in the direction of that quality which encourages the weakness rather than counteracting it.

20 March 2006

Bruce Holland Rogers: Short-Short Stories

I happened to run into Bruce Holland Rogers briefly at the AWP Conference, which reminded me that I had intended this month to write a bit about his short-short story subscription series, where subscribers can have three stories emailed to them each month for the more than reasonable price of $5/year.

I love the idea of the subscription series, because it's so simple and yet effective, giving readers a regular new dose of fiction of manageable size, and forcing a writer to keep writing, to keep engaging with an audience, to keep playing around and trying stuff out. With a writer of less skill than Rogers, it might grow tedious, but I've been reading the stories for a year now and have enjoyed seeing what sorts of things he'll come up with each time. At their best, the stories are small gems; at their worst, they are rarely less than competent. That's not a bad track record, and it certainly seems worth $5.

Before I discuss some specific stories, I need to admit some prejudices. First off, I much prefer lyrical and poetic short-shorts to narrative ones -- I tend to like the sorts of things that get labelled as prose poetry, but am somewhat less enamored of super-short prose narratives, because so often it seems writers who try to tell stories with very few words end up resorting to tricky endings, stereotyped characters, and sentimentality. Nonetheless, done well, it can be a thrilling form.

Rogers often does write short narratives, a few of which (the longer ones) I found somewhat interesting, but I was most taken with his work when he experimented a bit with form, for instance the all-dialogue story "Look, There He Is!" from March of last year, the chronicle of deaths that is "Resume" from September, the "autobiographical" fantasy "Bruce Holland Rogers" from just last week, and, especially, the story-told-as-a-recipe "Lydia's Orange Bread", first published by 3AM and then sent out as part of the subscription in October. (Yes, sometimes subscription stories are previously published.)

Read as they arrive, the stories are a pleasant, sometimes thought-provoking break from the other sorts of emails that come in, and I've been glad to receive them each time, even if one particular story or another didn't work for me. Read as a whole, they are somewhat less effective, because despite Rogers's experimentations with form, his sentences are generally similar in their approach, and so while the structures of the stories are remarkably varied, the style seems less so. (This could be said of most writers, including quite a few great ones, and it really isn't much of a concern when the stories are read apart from each other.)

While I'm here, I should recommend Rogers's useful book Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer, one of the few books that tackles pragmatic concerns of being a writer, not just basics of "how to write a short story" or other things 1,423,683 other writing books are about. The section on "Dangerous Territory" is worth the price of the book alone, as it looks at "The Hazards of Rejection and Acceptance", "The Hazards of Writing Workshops", and, nearest and dearest to my heart, "The Hazards of Reviews". I'll leave you with some wisdom from the last:
If you're writing for reviewers, or if you're hesitating to write something because of what the reviewers might say, you've lost your soul.

17 March 2006

Her Only Real Reader

From "Every Secret of a Writer's Soul" by Elizabeth Talent, Threepenny Review #105:
The quiet I tend to attribute to [Virginia] Woolf's prose whenever I've been away from it for any length of time really isn't there at all: her work is characteristically brimming, agitated by the busy interestedness of minds (those of her characters) given to incessant noticing, lapsing and gathering momentum like the waves that are one of her favorite images. Quietness lay not in her style, but in my response to it, since with Woolf there was none of the tension arising when my own private voices, the ways I explain reality to myself, dissented from the voice(s) of whatever I was reading. I do not mean that my mind is anything like Woolf's, only that while reading her I could not manage to sustain any awareness of how our minds were different. I was lost, and this was a relief, because I had not been alive enough. As if an old wrong had been set right, I was relieved to possess, by way of a stolen paperback, life so beautifully seen. It had been waiting for me to see it thus -- life -- just as Woolf had always been there waiting for me to read her. I did not know then that in trying to find out who she was I would discover not one VW but hundreds belonging to other people, all jealously defending their status as her only real reader. To fall for Woolf is like ducking from a storm into a godsend taxi, only to find you're shut in with lovers who are at each other's throats, so tense, so intertwined, that anything can trigger a resumption of hostilities, even something as small as a phrase, a word.

14 March 2006


Mike Allen has just edited a new anthology of fantasy stories and poems called Mythic, and it is available now. It includes a story of mine (excerpt here), plus work by a wide range of writers including Sonya Taaffe, Joe Haldeman, Vandana Singh, Theodora Goss, Richard Parks, Ian Watson, and plenty of others.

AWP Wrap-up

After the first two days, AWP, like almost any conference or convention, lost some of its wonder, but as the scenery became familiar, I found it easier to settle into a certain kind of calm and not rush around in a mad flurry, terrified of missing some great event or marvelous person.

The panel I was on was at 9am on Saturday morning, an evil and punishing time for those of us who think morning should begin somewhere around noon, and who blithely go on talking to their roommate into the wee hours. Nonetheless, Jeff and I did a good job of making sure we both got up, showered, dressed (he far better than I; not being a prep school teacher, he's not yet sick of neckties), and had a quick breakfast. We even arrived early to the room where the panel was being held. It was a big room, with fluorescent lights that seemed to be particularly energetic that morning.

The audience for the panel was surprisingly large, given the hour. Jeff opened with a nice overview of the potentials and possibilities of fantasy writing as an art and craft; Kelly Link offered an amusing view of the use or uselessness of labels (bringing down the house when she invoked China Mieville's term "weird shit" as a good description of what she writes), Laird Hunt gave a truly amazing presentation in its insight and eloquence (to say more would be to risk doing violence to it; I hope to at least be able to present some excerpts here soon); I did my thing, and Brian Evenson tied it all together with remarkable lucidity and style. There was plenty of time for questions at the end, and it was interesting to see that particular audience react -- we were praised for "having the balls" to raise this topic at AWP at all, and offered what we could for advice on how to talk about popular (and weird shit) fiction at a place where academically-sanctioned "literary fiction" is the main course. (Personally, I didn't think it required much courage at all; while some old fuddy-duddies might have thought our presence was inappropriate, for the most part I found lots of people who were quite excited to discuss ways of toppling the stranglehold of narrowly-defined "realism" on the world of writing workshops, as well as plenty of editors of literary journals that are interested in more than just the 1,431,235th imitation of Raymond Carver -- two who spoke to me specifically were from The Journal and Redivider, the latter of which has an interview with Kelly Link in an upcoming issue.)

It was a pleasure after our panel to get a chance finally to meet Ron Hogan, who has written about his AWP experience at Galleycat (and posted pictures of Kelly, Gavin, Jeff, me, and my fellow LitBlog Co-opper Kassia Kroszer of Booksquare and, from Pinky's Paperhaus, Carolyn Kellogg, who had my favorite hair of the week).

I dashed down the hall of the convention center to see a panel Ron was on titled "Blogs, Boards, Online Journals" with, in addition to Ron (whose home base is Beatrice.com), Robin Beth Schaer of The Academy of American Poets website, Ravi Shankar of the online journal Drunken Boat, Joshua Corey of the poetics blog Cahiers de Corey, and Tony Tost, editor of Fascicle (among other things, including the blog The Unquiet Grave). Given how many people on the panel are associated with poetry of some sort of another, that was a primary topic -- the role of the Internet with regard to poetry -- but I found myself most interested in the idea of the Internet as a way to get away from some of what Josh Corey called the "prestige economy" of the centralized world of mainstream poetry publishing and toward a more open, less monolithic "gift economy" (echoes of Lewis Hyde). I'm not sure I'm comfortable with either term, or with it being a choice of one or the other, but it was certainly a provocative discussion. During the Q&A afterward, interesting questions were asked regarding women's blogs, the assumption of a middle class and English-speaking audience, etc., though everyone pointed out that, even if the worst-case-scenario of Internet elitism is true, many online journals and blogs have considerably larger and more diverse audiences than print magazines, particularly literary journals.

After that panel, I went to yet another, this time with Nathan Long, a friend of mine from Bread Loaf days who now teaches at Richard Stockton College. The panel was on "Queer Fiction, Queer Community", with panelists Judy Doenges, Maureen Brady, and Robert Taylor. I found it utterly annoying, because the panelists all kept using the term "genre fiction" to refer, and denigrate, entirely different things. They made sweeping generalizations, indulged in some of the rankest egotism I saw at AWP, and managed to say just about nothing.

Nathan and I went to lunch afterward, which was one of the few times I really got to see much of Austin, as we wandered around 6th Street. Later, I made a final pass through the Bookfair, and then joined Kelly Link and Gavin Grant to go see the famous Austin bats fly out from underneath the Congress Avenue bridge. At first, we thought they might be taking the day off to rest, but it turned out they were merely waiting for a large audience to accumulate, and suddenly, as dusk moved toward dark, a rippling ribbon of bats flew out from under the bridge, and the ribbon continued and continued, hundreds of thousands of bats in all.

And then all that was left was to say goodbye to various people, including Rusty Morrison and Ken Keegan of Omnidawn, who were the entire reason I went to Austin at all, and who were kind, generous, and great guides to the conference.

For more AWP coverage, see Jeff's view and Ed Champion's collection of links.

13 March 2006

"Nonrealist Fiction"

Some people have asked to read what I presented at the panel on "nonrealist fiction" at the AWP Conference. Here is the text as best I can recreate it from my various notes. It was designed to be part of a conversation, to connect with some of what the other panelists were talking about, and to spur discussion with the audience, so it's not entirely complete on its own, but perhaps it holds some interest. (I'll have another post about AWP up within a day or two.)

We're here to talk about "nonrealist fiction", but I'd like to begin, instead of with the non- of something, with the something itself first. If there is nonrealist fiction, there must then be something called realist fiction. (Of course, I'm skipping over the privileging of "realist" that "nonrealist" allows -- "realist" being the normative core of the word "nonrealist". But so it goes.)

The New England Puritan in me balks at the term "realist fiction", because it seems like a contradiction, a paradox. That -ist suffix makes an adjective out of the noun "real", and how, my inner Puritan asks, can fiction be real?

I don't listen too closely to my inner Puritan very often, because he tends to sound a lot like his friend Jacques Derrida, and that gives me the urge to deconstruct his membership in the New England Puritan Society. Nonetheless, it's, if not a good question, at least an amusing one: Can fiction be real?

A better question is: What do we talk about when we talk about realism? What is excluded from the terms realism and realist?

It's important to remember that realism is an exclusionary category, that it sets up borders and keeps things out. Every category does this, though, so I don't mean to beat up on "realism" unfairly. What I'm interested in is what might motivate the desire to privilege the exclusionary term "realism".

My short answer to the question of what motivates this privileging, this desire to create boundaries and to exclude -- my short answer is: I don't know.

My long answer, much too long for today, involves casual and suggestive mentions of child psychology, Stalin, Robert Penn Warren, Jean-Luc Godard, Sputnik, the year 1968, Richard Nixon, environmental degredation, gay liberation, the Equal Rights Amendment, Affirmative Action, Jerry Falwell, Tipper Gore, the Dead Kennedys, "The Real World", "Survivor", Al Sharpton, Oliver North, Dr. Laura, Oprah, The Daily Show, JT Leroy, plastic surgery, Jack Abramoff, Dick Cheney's shotgun, Myspace.com, Cory Doctorow, and that annoying Billy Joel song "We Didn't Start the Fire". Among other things. Welcome to the dessert of the real.

Because we have limited time, I'm going to ask you to imagine there is a real transition here, because I would like to seize on some ideas that spawned this discussion. One of the descriptions I got for this panel included the sentence, "The old notions of disparaging writing that incorporates strategies commonly associated with the labels of science fiction, fantasy, horror are shifting dramatically." Unless I'm misreading things, this assumes that science fiction, fantasy, and horror are nonrealist writing of some sort.

Therefore, it seems that there is an implied definition of realist writing here that excludes elements associated with science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Realist writing as it is constructed here seems to be writing that does not deviate from events we know are possible within whatever world it is we consider the real one.

Such a definition of realist excludes much of the best literature created throughout human history. That alone should be enough to make us say that nonrealist writing deserves to be valued as much as realist writing. Make a list of ten writers you think are the best who ever lived; how many of them wrote only about events and actions that could actually happen in the world they lived in?

But (I hear you cry) nobody is calling for good literature to be ignored, marginalized, laughed at, forgotten, destroyed. Of course not. Us? Even that bizarre old adventure writer Herman Melville wrote a couple things worth saving. No no no, the truth is we all know what we're talking about. We're talking about crap. Thankfully, publishers and booksellers label the crap so we can avoid it. If you want crap, buy something labelled science fiction, fantasy, or horror. If you want something that is great art, buy something labelled Fiction/Literature.

Perhaps you sense a note of sarcasm in my tone. I can't be the only person in this room who has walked through the Fiction aisle of a big bookstore and thought, "Oh my god, look at all this crap!" Any stroll through the Fiction section makes me feel like that character in Five Easy Pieces: "Crap, crap, crap, crap, crap..." But the only time people notice is when I'm wandering through the Science Fiction section and saying the same thing. Then they think I'm insightful. Then they think I'm a man of discerning taste, a man of culture and refinement.

Okay, so I'm generalizing. But let me say this -- my problem is I don't particularly care what something is labelled, and I especially don't like issuing proclamations that all writers should or should not write in some specific way. What I desire as a reader and a writer has little to do with whether something fits anyone's definition of realist or not, and even less to do with how it fits into a marketing category. As a reader and writer, I find work compelling when it aims to push the possibilities of language and structure, of emotion and character, of ideas and effects. I grow bored with books that are a lot like other books and with stories that don't strive toward being something more than simple entertainment. These qualities can be found in works that fit just about any definition of realist or nonrealist, and they can certainly be found throughout the various sections of any bookstore -- and, conversely, these qualities are absent from many works that fit just about any definition of realist or nonrealist, and they are absent from whole shelves and cases of books in every section of every bookstore.

I'll leave you with what seems to me to be a question that flows naturally from these conclusions. If no definition of realist or nonrealist can be used as a value judgment -- if I can get the sorts of pleasures I desire from texts with stakes down in either camp -- what purpose do these labels serve?

I don't mean this question to be simply contradictory, because I do think there are times when we need distinguishing terms, even when we admit they are paradoxical and not entirely adequate. But we need such terms so we can express preferences, tastes, moods, inclinations, goals, ideals -- not to ghettoize and exclude, but to explore and describe, to express overlaps and disjunctions, to see what, previously, we might have been blind to. Just because we see things differently doesn't mean we should all stop looking.

10 March 2006

Quote for the Day

These days, some 30 regular homosexual characters are being beamed into your home by the major networks every week.

--CBN News
via Nick
Nobody told me the new TVs were doing this, or I would have gotten one a lot sooner! God bless the media conglomerates! Hallelujah, there is salvation!

A Few (Too Many) Words from Austin

The AWP Conference has been such a flurry of activity so far that I've not had any time to detail any of it here, but that may be a good thing, because I'm not sure I've got much of anything to say that wouldn't be utterly dull to anyone other than me, because much of what I've been doing is catching up with people I haven't met in person before, or haven't seen in years. Nonetheless, and risking repulsive narcissism and/or utter soporificity, here are some highlights...

Jeff VanderMeer and I had a nice lunch on Thursday with Eric Marin (of Lone Star Stories) and Rick Klaw (author of Geek Confidential). Rick works at Half Price Books, a large and extraordinary place, where, while touring the rare book room, I managed to prevent myself from buying a first British edition of Calder Willingham's first novel, End as a Man for $95, and Jeff managed to hold back and not buy a vintage copy of the proto-Ambergris novel Mushroom Town by Oliver Onions. I did, however, get a couple of cheap paperbacks by the Strugatsky brothers, which was quite exciting, as I've rarely encountered their books anywhere.

I spent a lot of time in the vast Book Fair of the conference, which is like being in an airplane hangar filled with tables where smart, interesting, and creative people hold court over piles of marvelous books. I got of copy of the first issue of Public Space, a new lit journal that includes, among other great things, a story by Kelly Link. I haven't had a chance to really read anything in it yet, but the production values are quite high, and so the journal feels nice to hold and look through. I stopped by the table of Hobart, a fun new journal I've been keeping my eyes on, and introduced myself to editor Aaron Burch, who seems much too nice and friendly to be an editor. (How does he reject people? Actually, I'll probably find out soon...) I also spent some time with Thom Didato, editor of my favorite webzine, Failbetter.com, who, as promised, was selling Failbetter beer steins.

The most interesting discovery of the day, though, was Visa For Avalon, a novel by Bryher, first published in 1965 and brought back into print by Paris Press. The description intrigued me too much to let it go:
In this chilling futuristic novel, five men and women attempt to immigrate to legendary Avalon after "the Movement" threatens the liberty and comforts they have taken for granted. Visa for Avalon takes place in an unnamed country and an unnamed time. As ordinary life comes to a standstill, escape is the only hope. But is Avalon truly the safe haven that it is rumored to be?
In the evening, a bunch of us headed over to BookPeople, an amazing bookstore, where Brian Evenson, Gavin Grant, Kelly Link, Michael Moorcock, Jeff VanderMeer and I all read stories to celebrate the publication of ParaSpheres , a huge anthology published by Omnidawn that has a phenomenal table of contents.

The reading went well, and the audience was appreciative. Nobody took pictures, as far as I know, but we all looked great. (You just haven't lived till you've seen Jeff VanderMeer in a pink feather boa.)

Today I went to a lot of panels, the best of which were "The Surrealist Landscape as Text" and "Arab American Novelists". The first featured presentations by Judith Johnson, John Bradley, George Kalamaras, and Patrick Lawler, none of whom were particularly familiar names to me, but all of whom had insightful things to say, particularly Patrick Lawler, who gave easily the most memorable presentation I've ever seen at a conference or convention. He talked about surrealism as a kind of literary/artistic ecotone, using in particular some works by Marcel Duchamp. What made the presentation so good, aside from all the various and poetically-expressed ideas, was that Lawler did it in the third person, opening with something to the effect of, "Patrick Lawler would like to discuss the work of Magritte, but he is, unfortunately, obsessed with Marcel Duchamp. Magritte is the artist of ecotones, but Patrick Lawler insists that we talk about Duchamp." And continued from there. It was hilarious and also somehow beautiful and instructive. "I forgot to write a manifesto," he said, quoting either Duchamp or himself (my notes are incomplete), "and now I suffer." Here are the ends of my notes on the presentation:
A proliferation of energy. The ecotone btw question & answer. Performance, personae. The borders between what I had to say and what I didn't have to say, between what I had to say and what I needed to say. "Marcel Duchamp, you make my penis weep." To enter the glass not as reflection, but as participant.
The other very good panel, "Arab American Novelists" was rather more down-to-Earth. The panelists were Gregory Orfalea, Patricia Sarrafian Ward, and Naomi Shihab Nye. Orfalea opened by saying that, to his knowledge, this was the first time the subject of Arab American novelists had been given its own panel at a conference that was not a Middle East-specific one, and that this is a sign of real progress. He then gave an overview of Arab American fiction, illustrated with some photographs included in his The Arab Americans: A History, and discussed some of the potentials and problems of defining "Arab American novelists" at all, and the use such a definition can serve in our current society. Patricia Sarrafian Ward discussed some of the influences on and inspirations for her novel The Bullet Collection, and Naomi Shihab Nye discussed young adult novels about Arab Americans and Middle Eastern people and situations, then read from her novel Habibi. There was time at the end for some questions from the audience, and the topic of "hyphenated writers" came up -- do they accept the hyphen, do they resent it, etc. Gregory Orfalea said that he doesn't put a hyphen in "Arab American", because to him Arab is the adjective and American is the noun, and most of the time the American holds sway. Naomi Nye said that in the current situation of the world, she now identifies her Arab background more, because of the need to be visible, to show ways of having a positive relationship with the Middle East and Middle Eastern people. An audience member, an Iranian-American (or Iranian American) said the hyphen can be a way of counteracting being "the other", to be proud of her self and to communicate a humanity beyond being a generic "foreigner". Patricia Ward noted that the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee puts "American" before "Arab" to show the need for unity first. (Plenty of other fascinating things were said, but I wasn't able to write fast enough to make a complete transcription, alas.)

While I don't think I have any other news of even potential interest, I do want to note here that Kelly Link highly recommends Vampires, Burial, and Death : Folklore and Reality by Paul Barber. She's been showing it to everybody she encounters, and it does, indeed, look fascinating.

07 March 2006

Off to Austin

I'm heading off to Austin, Texas in the morning to the AWP Conference, where I'll be on a panel Saturday morning with Brian Evenson, Laird Hunt, Kelly Link, and Jeff VanderMeer (organized and moderated by our friends from Omnidawn press).

I'll also be reading part of a new short story at BookPeople at 7pm on Thursday night, and if you're anywhere near Austin you should go, not because I'm there, but because the other readers are Gavin Grant, Brian Evenson, Kelly Link, Michael Moorcock, and Jeff VanderMeer.

I also just learned that Thom Didato, editor of the wonderful Failbetter.com will be there selling, among other things, Failbetter beer mugs. I haven't seen Thom in a couple years, so I'm psyched to get a chance to catch up with him.

Unless something goes wrong, I should have internet access while in Austin, and will do what I can to post at least a few updates as time permits.

05 March 2006

Dave Itzkoff's Inner Child is Not Happy

On a quick first read, I kind of liked Dave Itzkoff's science fiction column in the NY Times. But I kind of like lots of things when I first read them quickly, and when I went back this morning and read it again, I didn't like it much at all.

I knew the column would cause some controversy, and, as Cheryl points out, there's already a letter in Locus. The best response I've seen, though, is Nick Mamatas's.

I wrote up my thoughts on David Marusek's Counting Heads all the way back in December (and also linked to Nick then...hmmm...), and though I had a similar response to reading the book as Itzkoff, I didn't feel the need to blame all contemporary science fiction for this fact.

Some SF is geeky. Some SF is focused on technological change and detailed extrapolation of scientific ideas in a way that may require both careful attention from a reader and interest in that sort of thing. Some SF is not about individual characters or providing much in the way of characterization. Why is this a problem? Because random people on the subway might not like it.

Itzkoff betrays a tendency that's easy to fall into (I certainly have at times): the desire for everybody else to like what you like. First, he wants to have the same social prestige for reading the kind of crap he reads as other people have for the crap they read: "As that lone subway traveler who still occasionally rides to work brandishing a dog-eared edition of 'A Canticle for Leibowitz' or 'The Illustrated Man,' I realize I'll never enjoy even a fraction of the social standing afforded to the umpteenth passenger who is just now cracking open a mint-condition copy of 'The Kite Runner' or a fresh paperback of 'A Million Little Pieces' purchased after it was discredited, and I don't expect this to change any time soon." I have a hard time mustering up much of a response beyond, "Boo hoo," because if the poor boy is wandering through the subways in search of "social standing" for the books he reads, there's no hope for him at all and he needs to get one of those expensive Manhattan shrinks to work through it with him.

The next sentence is the telling one: "But what truly shames me is that I cannot turn to any of these people, or to my friends, or to you, and say: Whether you read books because you have a genuine, lifelong passion for literature or because a feisty woman in Chicago tells you to -- you should pick up this new work of science fiction I just finished reading, because you will enjoy it as much as I did." And what, he's going to do this with War and Peace? Isn't that an interesting idea, though -- you should read this, because you will enjoy it as much as I did. How do you know, Dave? Maybe I'm more broadly read than you and will find whatever book you like to be cliched and silly. Maybe I've only read a few novels in my life, most of them in high school for quizzes and tests, and anything you give me to read other than the most basic and pandering drivel will be far less entertaining for me than a sitcom or a videogame or tractor pulls or advanced calculus. Are you so insecure about your tastes that you need validation of them from all the people sharing a subway car with you?

Consider the next paragraph:
I cannot do this in good conscience because if you were to immerse yourself in most of the sci-fi being published these days, you would probably enjoy it as much as one enjoys reading a biology textbook or a stereo manual. And you would very likely come away wondering, as I do from time to time, whether science fiction has strayed so far from the fiction category as a whole that, though the two share common ancestors, they now seem to have as much to do with each other as a whale has to do with a platypus.
So there are two things in the world, "fiction" and things that are unreadable by people on subway cars. There is also this person called you, and you don't enjoy reading biology textbooks or stereo manuals. This is a marvelous move, because here the equation is "you = Dave Itzkoff" and so the insecure writer has turned the world into himself. Clearly, his inner child, disappointed with the world, is acting up.

The implication here is that you is not a "geek", which is what a person who enjoys such novels as Counting Heads is. Geeks are outsiders, they are not normal, they exist on the margins, they are part of a freakshow, they have no social standing or political clout, and they don't read the New York Times. And they're taking over the world and making science fiction unsafe for the rest of us.

Except the thing Itzkoff calls "science fiction" (or "sci fi") doesn't exist. It doesn't exist as an opposite to the ridiculous "fiction" category he creates (since that doesn't exist, either), and it doesn't exist because all sorts of things get published as science fiction, and nothing he says about "science fiction" now is any different from what could be said about "science fiction" at any time those two words have been put together to describe a type of writing.

I'm not denying there isn't plenty of SF that is, well, geeky. It's not the stuff that appeals to me, but I actually admire it a lot, because done well -- and Counting Heads is done well -- it is intellectually audacious. Why should it have to be as appealing to the masses as The Da Vinci Code? This is to confuse quality with popularity, and that's a deadly confusion. I'll take geeky science fiction over the majority of what is published as either "science fiction" or "fiction" any day.

Looking at Itzkoff's list of favorite SF books, we see that he's obviously not Marusek's audience. No Hal Clement on that list. No Asimov, Heinlein, or Clarke. It's the softest of soft SF. I don't mean that as an insult -- I like the books he chose more than I like Clement, Asimov, Heinlein, or Clarke, too. But if you want to talk about whales and platypuses, they aren't "fiction" vs. "science fiction" but Itzkoff's preferences vs. the preferences of readers of harder SF. It is not David Marusek's responsibility to appeal to people like Itzkoff or me. He's got other things to do.

Amusingly enough, Itzkoff's choices and preferences suggest he is as crippled by nostalgia as the people who complain that SF hasn't been any good since the death of John W. Campbell (the people who were loving Clement, Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke). This is his inner child talking. Such nostalgia blinds readers to the good qualities of many contemporary books that don't fit into old templates. If Dave Itzkoff ever digests his inner child, he might discover that the world is far more complex and multilayered and joyfully, frustratingly paradoxical than he noticed before.

01 March 2006

Quote for the Day

I understand why you would be irritated at people wanting to see [Octavia Butler] as only representing one thing. I agree with you that that would be just wrong-headed. I can see from the ways in which people have been responding to the news of Octavia's passing that her work and life touched all kinds of people. That's a glorious thing. But I cannot forget the power gradient. So I also want to remember her for the particular ways that her work and life is precious to particular people and groups of people.

--Nalo Hopkinson