31 May 2006

A Certainty

Here I am inclined to fight windmills, because I cannot yet say the thing I really want to say.

--Ludwig Wittgenstein
On Certainty
(via Laird Hunt)

26 May 2006

Yannick Murphy at the LBC

Yannick Murphy week is coming to an end over at the LitBlog Co-op. I adored Murphy's novel Here They Come, and wrote two posts about it. There's a bunch of other stuff there, too, including lots of discussion of the book, of writing, and of bending spoons.

If you want a sample of some of Murphy's writing, you could do worse than to read her story "Walls".

25 May 2006


Before it won a special Tiptree Award and was noted by judge Matt Ruff, I hadn't encountered Regender, which rearranges the gender identifying words on websites. It can be a bit addicting...

For instance, while it's amusing to regender things like Google News and Arts & Letters Daily, the challenge is to get more and more creative: A regendered Playboy interview with Camille Paglia -- now that's fun! Even more illuminating is a regendered homepage for NARTH, the National Association for the Research & Therapy of Homosexuality, a group determined to cure gays of their degeneracy. Note the subtly revealing effect of regendering a NARTH paper like "Adolescent Homosexuality".

Regendering one's own site can be fun, too, although I was slightly disconcerted to see myself become renamed Mary Cheney. (Just yesterday I said to someone, "I should become a lesbian," but I didn't mean that one!)

Otherwhats & Elsethings

The blogmonster sits waiting hungrily for content, but the blogwriter lacks time, and so sends you away to see...

24 May 2006

Gilbert Sorrentino (1929-2006)

The new names filled him with a profound anxiety; he felt that if he could understand the reasons why the objects evoked names -- or, as he had begun to think of them, captions -- which refused to denote, explain, or illuminate them, which, in fact, disintegrated in them, he might then be able to understand the fearsome emptiness of his childhood as well as the subtly disfigured adult life to which it had so relentlessly led. But he could never understand, and his attempts led him to more convoluted experiences, as on the night when a couple of aspirins became pubic hair. One morning, staring at the closed lids of his eyes, he conceived of himself as absolutely nothing, and a great silence, which turned to death, enveloped him.

--Under the Shadow

It is only by persistence that the imagination is freed in order that it may create anything; the Splendide-Hotel, for example. This hotel was invented by Arthur Rimbaud who later went to live there. I have it on good authority that there are very few people who are interested in this fact. For that matter, a magnificently aware and intelligent couple I recently met -- their apparel was forcefully, agressively even, imaginative -- had never heard of the Splendide. They spoke to me of the flowers that they grew in profusion in their small backyard garden. They seemed inordinately proud of them, almost as if they had made them. When I lightly mentioned that Rimbaud had questioned whether a flower, dead or alive, was worth the droppings of one sea bird, they became angry with me, and, I take it, with Rimbaud. The products of the imagination must be tendered with the greatest of care.


If the work is to have the wholeness and serenity of art it must be complete, that is, coherent. On the other hand, the works of literature to which we return, which offer themselves anew to us each time we encounter them, are never complete, never truly coherent. There is always a mystery to them, an opacity, a level of discourse that is just out of reach of the intellect, an arrogance. Such work goes well beyond the idea of the possibility of its being something other: it has, in fact, its otherness built in. This otherness is the quality of infinity that permits the reader to understand that although the author has finished his work, there is in it a quality that refuses to be finished; such a work can never end, but goes on "writing" itself forever. Curiously enough, such work may be more "finished" than work that is seemingly finite. If this is a contradiction of my statement that "writers never complete their writing," it is so only insofar as those who do the completing are readers.

--"Fictional Infinities"
in Something Said

For they had indeed come to a strange, a bewitched and shimmering land of profligate colors, shifting, blending, shining in the bright limpid sunshine all the way to the horizon, and perhaps -- beyond! Who can tell? Not the ardent chigger nor the blear-eyed philosopher prone beneath his midnight oils and watercolors. No living thing stirred in all that vast expanse of tints, shades, and tones, save perhaps for the quick scuttling Gila monster dragging a placid cow into his lair, or upsetting a faded Dixie cup in his abrupt panic, a Dixie cup dropped generations ago from the beak of a bluejay or a chickadee who, though long dust, lives on in the songs that weave their way into the sky of nights around many a long-decayed bunkhouse. All was still, yet all was a riot of color.

--Blue Pastoral


23 May 2006

Last Notes from BEA

I suspect people who weren't there find hearing about BookExpo America to be the blogging equivalent of looking through somebody's thousand vacation snapshots, or listening to someone relate how exciting some cocktail party somewhere was, so I'll let this be the final notes from BEA. I didn't meet any big celebrities, didn't go to many panels, didn't take notes about anything other than that it would be fun to get a bunch of people to write stories beginning with the word "renowned" (a la, I'm told, The DaVinci Code). But, for those of you inexplicably addicted to BEA posts, here are some, as we say, thangs:
  • Thursday I got to hang out with my best friend from NYU years, whom I hadn't seen since her wedding back in November. We went to see Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill at Arena Stage and got to sit in the cabaret seats right in front of the stage, which was fun. Some lovely singing of songs I love, though the acting seemed stiff. Lynn Sterling, who played Billie Holiday, is a marvelous singer with far more range than Holiday, and I was pleased that she didn't try to do an imitation, but instead inhabited the songs as her own.

  • The parties were often fun, but also usually frustrating because they were so loud, particularly the PGW party on Saturday night, where the techno-band played at such volume every object in the room was shaking. It's annoying when surrounded by all sorts of people you want to have conversations with to be unable to communicate even when screaming.

  • Ed Champion took great advantage of my tendency to make faces and pull poses when a camera is around. Kelly Link and I showed him just what we think of having our picture taken. Later, I failed at impersonating the young Truman Capote. Ed did capture me unawares, though, doing what I do best: standing against a wall, talking to no-one. (What I'm really scared of, though, is the podcast Ed's planning to make with the material he recorded on Sunday, when I had had barely any sleep and was functioning purely on the last vestiges of adrenaline and a bit of caffeine.)

  • Lots of other people have written more substantial and informative posts than I about BEA, including Ed (see in particular his notes on the Embracing the Short Story panel), Mark Sarvas, Lauren Cerand, Wendi Kaufman, and Gwenda Bond.

22 May 2006

BEA: The Loot

I made it back safe and sound from BookExpo America, despite gigantic lines at the airport and baggage overloaded with books. I didn't end up taking many photos, and am having technical issues with the camera I borrowed, but I do hope soon to be able at least to post a picture of Jeremy Lassen in his zoot suit.

For now, I'll just note some of the books I brought home:
  • I picked up some Night Shade books I didn't have -- Bold as Love by Gwyneth Jones, Trujillo by Lucius Shepard, Maul by Tricia Sullivan, and London Revenant by Conrad Williams. (I already had a galley of one of the hottest books Night Shade offered at BEA, Ray Manzarek's Snake Moon, about which we kept saying to people, "Yes, that's Ray Manzarek of The Doors." One of the other popular books, Imaro by Charles Saunders, I thought I already had, but got home to discover I don't. Ahhh well, it's not like I don't have more than enough to read already...)

  • I don't know much about young adult fiction, but Kelly Link and Gwenda Bond convinced me I needed to read some, and so I grabbed galleys of The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas and A Drowned Maiden's Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz, and convinced a publicist to send me a copy of Ysabeau Wilce's upcoming, and marvelously-titled, novel Flora Segunda: The Magickal Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog.

  • Of the very little bit of YA fiction I've read, I've enjoyed that of M.T. Anderson, and therefore was excited to get him to sign an advanced copy of The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume One: The Pox Party. Another fine and lengthy title.

  • I have not had time to read all of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and so was happy to get a galley of Susanna Clarke's short story collection The Ladies of Grace Adieu, which is due out in October. At least I will be able now to read some of her stories and familiarize myself with her work, which so many people praise so highly. (Not that I want to go in with impossible expectations.)

  • I have never heard of Ryan Boudinot, but was intrigued enough by the title of his first short story collection to grab an advanced copy -- it's called The Littlest Hitler.

  • I have heard of Brian Evenson, having done a reading and panel with him at AWP (and I've admired his writing for a few years now), so it was with great joy and expectation that I picked up an advance copy of his new novel, The Open Curtain, from the great people at Coffee House Press, one of the most consistently surprising, adventurous, and eclectic publishers I know of. The novel is about murder, memories, Mormons, and blood sacrifice, and I was pleased to see that the bio on the back cover notes Brian's recent International Horror Guild award for his collection The Wavering Knife. (Brian was at BEA briefly, and he and Kelly Link and I had a very quick AWP reading/panel reunion at the Night Shade booth before he headed back to the real world.)

  • I was thrilled to get a moment to chat with someone from TCG, one of the best publishers of plays in the U.S., because I don't get much chance to see shows anymore and would like to have some more scripts to read and to write about here. I picked up Conor McPherson's Shining City and the controversial My Name is Rachel Corrie. (I read half of the McPherson on the plane home and it didn't do much for me, but I may have been too tired to give it a fair reading.)

  • Eric Lorberer asked me to review a few upcoming books for Rain Taxi -- two by Bryher, The Heart to Artemis: A Writer's Memoirs and The Player's Boy, reissued by Paris Press, as well as a new book from the University of Minnesota Press, Transgender Rights. (This came after a discussion I had with Eric in which someone or other seemed surprised that I would be interested in a particularly feminist book. Eric said, "She seemed surprised you're a man." I said, "Little does she know!" He said, "Is there something you haven't told me? Have you had a ... change ... I should be more aware of..." And I replied, "Not recently." He said, "Recently?" I said, "Before I was born." He said, "That's a line you should use in something -- 'I had a sex change before I was born.'") The good, generous, and charitable people at UMN Press also promised to send, when they get some, a copy of New Downtown Now: An Anthology Of New Theater From Downtown New York, a book I've been looking forward to for a long time.

  • This morning I had a nice chat with a couple of people from McSweeney's, one of whom might have been the excellent editor Eli Horowitz, but I was suffering too much sleep and nutritional deprivation to have the basic politeness to ask, even though he recognized me as a champion of The People of Paper. I praised current LitBlog Co-op nominee Here They Come (to be discussed this week), a beautiful book, and he gave me a copy of Icelander by Dustin Long and a pamphlet of the first half of The Children's Hospital by Chris Adrian, both of which look to be utterly bizarre in wonderful ways.

  • I introduced myself to somebody at New Directions by saying I'm a reviewer and blogger interested in strange, surreal, uncategorizable books, and they gave me How I Became a Nun by Cesar Aira, which is described as "A sinisterly funny modern-day Through the Looking Glass that begins with cyanide poisoning and ends in strawberry ice cream." How could I resist?

  • And there are a few other books, but they're not in front of me at the moment, and so will have to wait to be discussed at another time. As I get a chance to read through all these treasures, I'll do my best to at least point to the ones that seem most interesting, though right now they all seem quite interesting, which is unfortunate, because I've got a bunch of other things I really should be reading....

19 May 2006

BEA Friday

Well, it turns out that there is no free wi-fi access in the exhibition hall of BookExpo America, so I wasn't able to do any liveblogging of the event, which is probably for the best, because it's so gigantic and overwhelming that it's unlikely I would say anything other than, "Wow. Lots of people. Millions of books. Wow. Lots. Huh. Wow."

I'm here with Jeremy Lassen of Nightshade Books, helping him convince passersby that trading their contact info for a free copy of a Nightshade book is a good deal. This has not been difficult, because the current crop of Nightshade books are beautifully designed and produced, making them quite attractive even in the sea of books that is BEA.

We've been up since 6.30am and attended both the LitBlog Co-Op party and the Small Beer Press etc. party tonight, so I am utterly and completely exhausted, but I did want to note here that I've met a bunch of my fellow bloggers for the first time -- Gwenda Bond, Mark Sarvas, Sarah Weinman, Ed Champion, Wendi Kaufman, Max Magee, Lizzie Skurnick, Kassia Kroszer, Carolyn Kellogg, Ron Hogan, Bud Parr, and probably at least one person I'm temporarily forgetting. I'd met Kassia, Carolyn, and Ron at the AWP conference earlier this year, and it was fun to see them again, but everybody else was new to me. These are marvelous people: intelligent, fun, friendly -- I want to marry them all. (Heck, Ed -- in his obnoxious Bat Segundo persona -- even kissed me.)

I've gotten advanced copies of some great books, but they're sitting in a bag at the other side of the hotel room right now, and so will need to wait a few days for me to write about them. Tomorrow I'm taking a digital camera with me, and so tomorrow night, if I haven't collapsed, I'll post some pictures...

16 May 2006

Here Comes the Flood

Thanks to the folks who've asked if I have drowned in the record-breaking flooding that's going on all around northern New England right now. There are supposedly more than 600 roads closed in New Hampshire, some dams are failing, and all the towns around me have very flooded areas. My own particular postage-stamp of land is about 30 feet above the nearest river, so I should be fine. Here's an article about the evacuation of one of the towns that borders where I live.

And yes, it's still raining.

BEA + LBC = Party!

If you're in Washington, D.C. on Friday night, regardless of whether you're there for BookExpo America, stop by the LitBlog Co-op party from 6-8pm at The Big Hunt, 1345 Connecticut Avenue NW.

I'm also hoping to at least show up briefly at the Public Space/Small Beer Press/Melville House/Bomb Magazine party that night from 6.30-9pm in The Gold Room of The Eighteenth Street Lounge, 1212 18th Street NW.

Things are likely to be quiet around here until Friday, when (providing there's a wireless connection), I'll be providing reports from the Nightshade Books table at BEA.

13 May 2006

Twilight of the Endings

From a review by Jonathan Dee in the June Harper's of Deborah Eisenberg's new story collection, Twilight of the Superheroes:
"Sometimes, when I write a story," Eisenberg once said, "what I want the story to do is to convey a very specific and usually very peculiar feeling. And the narrative is the conveyance. That is, in some cases, I'm not terribly interested in the narrative itself; I've simply chosen that particular narrative because of what I think it can do." The notion of narrative not as something to be worked out on its own terms but as a "conveyance" of a particular feeling is a technique that could prove disastrously precious in the hands of a lesser writer, and it goes a long way toward explaining one of the most idiosyncratic aspects of her work: the fact that her endings tend not to end much of anything at all. They seem simultaneously well honed and arbitrary. "Some Other, Better Otto" ends, quite hauntingly, on almost the same note of agony with which it began -- as if to say that the cost to Otto of preserving that emotional distance from his family is paid continually and is beyond the reach of any narrative machinery to resolve. "Window" tells the story of an abused woman who has grown so attached to the young son of her abuser that she kidnaps him and hits the road; no authorial signal is given as to when or how badly this flight might end. "The Flaw in the Design" is a spooky portrait of a suburban family on a precipice: the son, whose adolescent acting-out seems to have crossed the border into serious depression, hates the father, who may be implicated in the financial wrongdoing of an associate now on trial; the mother, when not assuring them both that everything will be fine, is picking up strangers for sex. That precipice is where Eisenberg leaves them. What keeps these stories from insufficiency is that they do not just name-check the characters' troubles (gay ex-husband, obnoxious family); they make the effort to build these emotional conditions from the ground up, so that by the time Eisenberg is done, the reader has internalized her own conviction that the intensity of these particular states of mind would only be diminished by any sort of resolution that might be grafted onto them.

10 May 2006

Sane Sex Living

A friend just gave me a 1922 edition of Sane Sex Life and Sane Sex Living by H.W. Long. At first, he thought it said, "Same Sex Life and Same Sex Living", so he thought I needed it and picked it up at a junk shop, but then got it home and realized his misreading. Nonetheless, he was certain I could put it to good use, at least for research of some sort.

One interesting thing about the book is that it was published by Eugenics Publishing Company, Inc. in New York, a company I have not been able to find any information about, but which seems to have published quite a variety of books up through at least the 1940s, though a quick Google search didn't turn up the full texts of any other than the one I already have. (Though there are some interesting items in Project Gutenberg's file of books with the same Library of Congress category.)

I'm currently working on a paper about sexology and popular culture in the 1920s and 1950s, so could go on and on about this entire subject, but I'll spare you and instead pass on one interesting passage among many from the book--
For ages, the whole situation has been left in a condition of most deplorable, not to say damnable, ignorance; and no honest endeavor has been made to find out and act up to the truth in the premises. Husbands and wives have engaged in coitus ad libitum, utterly regardless of whether it was right or wrong for them to do so! They have taken it for granted that marriage conferred on them the right to have sexual intercourse whenever they chose, (especially when the man chose,) and they have acted accordingly. This is especially true of men, and the practice has been carried to such length that the right of a man to engage in coitus with his wife has been established by law, and the wife who refuses to yield this "right" to her husband can be divorced by him, if she persists in such way of living! It is such a fact as this which caused Mr. Bernard Shaw to write: "Marriage is the most licentious institution in all the world." And he might rightfully have added "it is also the most brutal," though it is an insult to the brute to say it that way, for brutes are never guilty of coitus under compulsion. But a husband can force his wife to submit to his sexual embraces, and she has no legal right to say him nay! This doesn't seem quite right, does it?

08 May 2006


Gordon van Gelder is offering a free copy of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction to any bloggers willing to write about it. I already subscribe, but, like Jeff Ford and Jonathan Strahan and others, I like the magazine and have been reading it for a long time. It's certainly my favorite of the digest-sized genre magazines, and the interior design is tasteful enough that I don't find it painful to read the stories housed within. Gordon strives to present a range of fiction, from the weirdly new to the traditionally familiar.

Here's my offer: I have a box with 23 issues of F&SF that, for one reason or another, I have multiple copies of. These range from the February 1961 issue with Brian Aldiss's "Hothouse" in it to the April 1965 with Isaac Asimov's "Eyes do More than See" to the November 1987 issue with James Tiptree, Jr.'s "In Midst of Life" (and the announcement of Tiptree's death), Ursula LeGuin's "Buffalo Gals, Won't You Come Out Tonight" (a personal favorite), and James Patrick Kelly's "Daemon" (never collected in a book, as far as I know) -- finishing off with the September 2005 issue with Kelly Link's recently-Nebula-winning novella "Magic for Beginners". (Condition ranges from brand new to falling apart.)

How do you get this box of goodies? Be the first person to leave a comment promising either to write about one or more of the issues in the box on your own blog, or to write a short something for this site about one or more of the issues. Then promise to send on any remaining issues to the first person to leave a comment on your post who vows to do the same, until eventually all these issues of F&SF find somebody to write about them, or at least a warm and loving home.

So be the first commenter on this post, then email me your address and I'll send the box to you. When you receive them, start reading. Once you've finished reading, write about your reading experience either for your own site or for this one. Then send the magazines you didn't read and don't want on to somebody else.

Update: And the winner is Paul Jessup!


06 May 2006

The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh

And I have sometimes wondered if it wouldn't make better sense to teach budding playwrights, instead of the usual Dramatic Technique, two rules grounded in human nature: if you wish to attract the audience's attention, be violent; if you wish to hold it, be violent again. It is true that bad plays are founded on such principles, but it is not true that good plays are written by defying them.

--Eric Bentley, The Life of the Drama (1964)
The Irish playwright Martin McDonagh has sometimes been compared to Quentin Tarantino, but the comparison seems superficial to me, because though McDonagh's writing can be brutal and grand guignol, sometimes in the same jokey or fatalistic way as Tarantino, McDonagh's dramatic sense is different -- less an echo of low-budget movies than a continuation of a line of violence going back to Euripedes and Seneca (perhaps the exemplar of this style is Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, where a certain glee accompanies the gore).

McDonagh's recent play The Pillowman seems at times to be about the effect of violence on society, the place of art in a repressive state, the power of stories to do this-that-and-another-thing, etc. The nihilistic genius of the play, though, is that while it suggests these ideas, it denies them -- it denies not just the possibility of "answering" such questions, but the usefulness of bothering to ask them at all.

Theatre audiences and critics have been conditioned to expect plays to deliver messages, and many good playwrights have mangled their art by bowing down to this condition. One of the problems with the messages delivered by most contemporary plays is that they're predictable and shallow -- war is bad, love is good, people should be nice to other people who aren't exactly the same as they are, etc. One of the results of ticket prices being so phenomenally expensive is that audiences expect what they see to give them either a lot of spectacle or some sort of education, though if you've just paid $85 for a seat, what you probably most want is a reinforcing of your current ideas under the guise of education, so that way even if you aren't entertained, at least you feel smart and righteous. (Yes, I'm generalizing horribly.)

McDonagh sets one trap after another in The Pillowman for anyone seeking easy meanings -- the play opens in a police interrogation room and within only a few lines, we begin to feel political undertones as the interrogated character, Katurian, insists he respects the police and will help them in any way, and meanwhile the police insult and threaten him. Soon we learn that Katurian is a writer who has written 400 stories, and it is because of his stories that he is being interrogated.

Here is where a playwright seeking to comment on the evils of dictatorship would show us how unjust it is for a writer to be imprisoned for writing subversive material. McDonagh has set us up to expect this. Then he changes our expectations: Katurian is being interrogated not because his stories are subversive to the totalitarian regime, but because they are almost entirely about the brutal torture and murder of children.

Now our expectation is slightly different -- "Ah ha!" we say. "This is a play about how violent writing should not be censored! Just like Martin McDonagh's violent plays should not be censored! He's writing about himself!"

Except soon we discover that Katurian's stories read like blueprints for some recent murders of children that the police are investigating. "Well," we say, "obviously the play is about how even if a writer writes violent stories, they shouldn't be blamed for how crazy psychopaths interpret them."

All of this happens within the first scene of the play, the first 30 pages of a 104-page script. The writing is sharp and smart, playing with the expectations that have been built up -- one of the interrogators asks Katurian, "Are you trying to say, 'Go out and murder children?'" and Katurian replies, "No! No bloody way! Are you kidding? I'm not trying to say anything that all! That's my whole thing." But we know better, of course -- we know that no writer can fail to say anything, that all writing is contingent on its political and cultural and historical situation, that even if we don't want to subvert the regime, by being good people who write good words we'll subvert it despite our intentions. McDonagh even has some fun with Kafka allusions, giving his interrogated writer a name beginning with K (and continuing on -- it's a lame joke, but his first, middle, and last names are the same. "Your name is Katurian Katurian Katurian?" one of the interrogators asks. "Like I said," Katurian replies, "my parents were funny people." To which the interrogator says, "Mm. For 'funny' I guess read 'stupid fucking idiots'." Katurian says, "I'm not disagreeing"). A few pages later, one of the interrogators paraphrases one of Katurian's stories to him, to which the writer replies, "That's a good story. That's something-esque. What kind of 'esque' is it? I can't remember. I don't really go in for that 'esque' sort of stuff anyway, but there's nothing wrong with the story."

After the first scene, The Pillowman becomes far more interesting, veering off into grotesque surrealism as we learn exactly how Katurian's stories are connected to the actual murders. The plot constantly undermines the expectations it creates, short-circuiting all the simple "meanings" we've been conditioned to notice with every jerk of the knee, until what we are left with are the bare, raw emotions of complex characters. The situations are often absurd, exaggerated, and revolting, but they continually force us to pay attention to what is going on beneath their beguiling and bloody surfaces -- to the misplaced desires and shattered dreams that push each character into being who they are. Easy social ideas are suggested and undermined, simplistic psychological motivations are offered for various actions and shown to be empty even when they're accurate, and political stereotypes are employed not for comment and explication, but as one more example of a too-easy answer.

Some reviewers of the New York and London productions of the play were taken in by the surface elements, perhaps because of choices made by the directors and actors and designers, perhaps because of the critics' own inability to see beyond the expectations they brought into the theatre. Even as generally astute a critic as Michael Feingold at the Village Voice missed the point entirely, complaining, "The notion of a state that pervades its citizens' lives every hour or every day seems to be outside McDonagh's imaginative powers." Michael Billington, another generally good critic, said in The Guardian, "McDonagh's subject is clear: the dangerous power of literature." Ben Brantley at the New York Times, an often more plodding critic than either Feingold or Billington, gets much closer to the heart of the play:
What "The Pillowman" is celebrating is the raw, vital human instinct to invent fantasies, to lie for the sport of it, to bait with red herrings, to play Scheherazade to an audience real or imagined. For Mr. McDonagh, that instinct is as primal and energizing as the appetites for sex and food. Life is short and brutal, but stories are fun. Plus, they have the chance of living forever.
Do stories last forever? Hardly. But longer than one human life sometimes, and by the end of the play, the possibility and desire for such longevity is where the real drama -- and the real violence -- of The Pillowman emanates from.

03 May 2006

Collaborating with a Ford

Over at the LBC's Jeffrey Ford Week, a ritual fellating praising of Jeff Ford has all and sundry turning up. I thought about posting some tales about Jeff over there -- the story of how I once took him to a vegan restaurant and tried to convert him to Calvinist fruitarianism, for instance -- but decided that I'd rather just leave some notes here. Because I know the real Jeffrey Ford...

[insert shimmering dreamy fog here]

This is a story about a story Jeff and I wrote together and have sold to John Klima at Electric Velocipede. This story became proof that though Jeff is the multiple-award-winning-author-of-blah-blah-blah, if he writes something with me, it will still get rejected by everybody. Even Klima didn't want to take it, until Jeff challenged him to a mudwrestling duel unless he published it.

And so we begin to see glimmers of The Real Ford. I, though, had seen these glimmers earlier.

Here's how the collaboration came about... Once upon a time, Jeff decided to quit smoking, and during this time, he had some very weird dreams that he wrote up and posted on a bathroom wall. I happened to be in that bathroom and read the dreams there, and thought they would be good material for some of Jeff's stories. I innocently -- innocently, I say! -- asked him what he was doing with the dreams. "What do you think I should do with them?" he asked. "Write a story," I said. "About what?" he said. "How about blah-blah-blah." He thought for a little bit, then said, "That's a good idea. Why don't you write it, and I'll fix all the stuff you screw up."

This was not what I had predicted would happen. I'd thought Ford would write his own story. They were his dreams, after all, not mine. (As I said, I went into this innocently. And I never lie.)

But being a loyal Ford fan, I decided to see what would happen. So I wrote the story, sent it to Jeff, and he sent it on to a short-story packager (a low-rent version of a book packager), and they sent it back to him, and he rewrote everything, taking out many of my best lines and leaving in a few sentences I really should never have written in the first place, then sent it back to me and said, "I think it's done. Send it out. Make sure my name's first, because I'm the famous one, remember. If it doesn't sell, it's your fault."

Yes, for all those stories of how friendly and generous Jeff Ford is, you only discover his true self when you write a story with him. There's a reason The Girl in the Glass is about con men. In reality, he's as manipulative, conniving, and self-centered as anyone this side of Dick Cheney. (And to think I once took him fishing at the secret lake of the tofu fish! How naive I was, how gullible!)

So that's a story of our miserable story. I know that with all the stories about Ford out there it's hard to separate the truth from the fiction, but as the Grand Reverend of Bananas preaches: "The truth lies beneath the peel."


It's final: I'm going to be at BookExpo America (May 19-21) in Washington, D.C., sitting at the Nightshade Books table with that indomitable enemy of the state Jeremy Lassen.

So if you, too, will be at BEA, stop by the Nightshade table and say hi. If you're not going to be there, I'll do my best to report lots of gossip and trade secrets so at the next cocktail party you go to, you can at least pretend you were there.

02 May 2006

On SF by Thomas M. Disch

I spent a few hours tonight reading through On SF, a grab-bag collection of reviews and essays by Thomas M. Disch that I picked up at a library a couple weeks ago but hadn't yet had a chance to look at.

Anyone familiar with Disch's previous study of science fiction, The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of, is unlikely to be surprised by such pronouncements as "science fiction is a branch of children's literature", but it does require a certain amount of masochism on the part of anyone who has spent a lot of time reading SF to read Disch's critical writing with pleasure, because unless you enjoy seeing someone beat up myths and idols you may not have even realized you felt protective toward, this book is likely to make you grit your teeth and howl at least once every five pages or so.

On SF seems to me to be a better book than I remember The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of being (I don't have a copy at hand), because Disch's strengths are more those of an epigrammatist than a systematizer, and the short reviews that fill most of this book are a good medium for his talents. He is a better hater than lover, a better drive-by assassin than obsessive stalker, and the persona that radiates from these pieces is that of someone it might be fun to hear a lecture from, but who would likely be insufferable at dinner.

Having a certain penchant toward intellectual masochism (as well as schadenfreude), I most enjoyed On SF whenever I encountered a passage where I thought, "No, I couldn't have read what I just did." For instance, the following, from a review of various "Best of the Year" anthologies from 1979, a year when Edward Bryant's story "giANTS" won a Nebula Award:
It is no longer enough to speak of the walls of the ghetto: now there's a dome, and (on the evidence of most of these stories) communications with the outside have ceased. For a writers' organization to give an award to such a story as "giANTS" is tantamount to erecting a sign at the airlock, saying, "Science Fiction -- abandon all taste, ye who enter here." Indeed, I've heard it argued that sf transcends, in its nature, the canons of mundane literary taste. How often, though, what seems like transcendence from one point of view looks like a lack of plumbing from another.

This is not to suggest that sf, in its institutional aspects, should be disbanded. Conventions are fun, and trophies decorate the den like nothing else. But for writers (or readers) to frame a standard of excellence based on purely intramural criteria, and to make it their conscious goal to win an award, is to confuse literature with bowling.
SF fans love to grumble and scream at the good and bad stories they read, they love to argue with awards and lists and anthologies, but Disch goes one step further and unpacks the dirty laundry, the ignoble motivations, the self-degrading actions of everything he perceives to be an embarrassment within the community of SF readers.

"Embarrassment" is a word Disch often uses -- the first essay in the book is titled "The Embarrassments of Science Fiction". To be embarrassed, you must be self-conscious and have a sense of an audience, of someone to be embarrassed in front of, someone who is judging what you do and who you are. For Disch, the creature to be embarrassed in front of is Literature. In the paragraphs I quoted above, the "outside" that the ghetto has sealed itself off from is the world of non-SF fiction. He praises Judith Merrill's Best SF anthologies for including "writers who weren't dues-paying members of the club" and notes that, "In their honorable mention lists at the back of their books neither Carr nor Dozois cites any stories from non-genre magazines or anthologies."

This is where Disch's sledgehammer approach seems particularly questionable to me, because I agree with many of his conclusions, but would want to add footnotes and amendments before signing on -- for instance, I admire Merril's Best SF anthologies more than any other such series, but I don't see anything particularly wrong with "intramural" anthologies, either, because done well they can be quite satisfying books. Also, while the "we need different standards" plea usually sounds like a whine to my ears, anybody who wants to judge popular fiction by the same criteria as they judge Proust really shouldn't bother reading any popular fiction. Disch's views would have been strengthened if he had advocated more carefully and strenuously for why anybody should care about standards of excellence based on something other than intramural criteria -- aren't all standards, from a distant enough view, those of a small group? A good case can be made for general historical and cultural aesthetic standards (the test of time, etc.) being worth consideration, but all such criteria rely on subjective and ever-changing judgments that are as far from universal as I am from Alpha Centauri.

Disch may be an embarrassed member of the SF community, but he is a member, and his point of view is valuable in part because of his insider knowledge. His hatred and scorn for so much of what he encounters in SF is the hatred and scorn of a disappointed believer, of someone who knows that the occasional work of SF can live up to very high standards, and who wishes that more people kept their standards high. Immediately following the paragraphs I quoted come these sentences about Gregory Benford's Timescape: "Not only does Timescape accomplish the specific task of science fiction ... but it also clears the hurdles of the mainstream novel with strength, grace, and intellectual distinction."

The popularity of writers Disch considers to be meretricious hacks particularly aggravates him, because he seems to hold onto a last glimmering utopian hope that were more readers able to appreciate great writing, the world might be a less aggravating place. He especially loathes Ray Bradbury's work, for instance, and his reviews of Bradbury are some of his most delightfully nasty: "His dry-ice machine covers the bare stage of his story with a fog of breathy approximations. He means to be evocative and incantatory; he achieves vagueness and prolixity." In fact, it is in a review of Bradbury that I found my single favorite sentence in On SF: "He is an artist only in the sense that he is not a hydraulic engineer."

The coruscating, caustic concision of that sentence may be a particularly fine example of what Disch can do, but there are similarly impressive, sharp, and iconoclastic sentences throughout the book, making it an ideal counterweight to the all-too-often tepid reviewing and criticism that fills not just the SF field, but the literary world in general.

01 May 2006

Out There

Things that are not here, but out there:

Bowes: The Millionth Writer

I seem to be in a congratulatory mood these days, perhaps because there are so many things to congratulate people about. I'm particularly happy today to offer congratulations to Rick Bowes, whose beautiful and deeply moving story "There's a Hole in the City" has won the storySouth 2006 Million Writers Award for Fiction.