29 June 2006

Blood on the Saddle by Rafael Reig

Seeking a change of pace, I read Rafael Reig's Blood on the Saddle, a novel that could be described as Italo Calvino rewritten by Elmore Leonard. Sort of. It's kind of like postmodern-lite -- call it pomopop. (Or don't.)

For the most part, Blood on the Saddle is a hardboiled detective story, but there are dashes of science fiction and western and general surrealism in there, too, with an evil corporation performing genetic experiments in the background and writers hiring private investigators to find characters that have gone astray and gun-toting cowboys (the best gods we get from our machines these days) climbing out of the pages of fictional popular fictions just in time to save not the day, but a couple hours, at least, before finding a metafictional sunset to ride to. The structure of the book is loose and even haphazard, allowing all sorts of allusions to play together. In the end, the novel is pleasantly superficial, appealing but not exactly memorable, a fine book for a plane ride or a beach read, because it doesn't require a lot of concentration, it's basically entertaining, and yet it won't make you feel stupid for reading it.

I found myself liking paragraphs of Blood on the Saddle more than pages. Here's one that particularly appealed to me:
What I called "home" was two rooms in one of the six garrets of a building on the Calle San Marcos. It was an attic-studio of the kind the Urban Plan had earmarked for unpublished artist-writers. Various generations of luckless hacks had dreamed of glory within those walls. It was noticeable. The indelible stains of so much useless effort were everywhere. The parquet creaked, worn out from supporting the weight of all the vanity. As soon as you turned off the light, obstinate insects began crawling out of the U-bend of the sink: brilliant metaphors that crawled along the tiles, hemistitches with compound eyes, fragments of prose having opaque integuments, hendecasyllables with eleven feet counted on your fingers...
Every few chapters, a paragraph as vivid and clever as that one pops out. Then, somewhat rarer, are paragraphs such as this, where imagery that seems (at least to me, at least right now) fresh and effective communicates a lot about the characters and situations:
Yes, at times I felt very lonely, like an equestrian statue in the rain. A man and his horse, motionless, in the middle of an empty square. The drizzle's coming down on them all afternoon, unhurriedly and unmercifully. Alone, man and horse, out in the open, when even the pigeons are sheltering under the eaves.
The novel tries too hard to be too much, and so ends up being much less than it could have been, but it nonetheless manages to be somehow charming, and I hope more of Reig's work is translated in the future, because on the evidence of Blood on the Saddle he has the potential to be a substantial and important writer, one capable of writing quirkily philosophical novels that are also well crafted and entertaining. (I should note, too -- or perhaps go out on a limb by saying -- that Paul Hammond's translation seems to be very good work, because the prose maintains a colloquial tone that never actually feels translated.)

28 June 2006

Readercon

People have recently been asking me if I'm going to Readercon in a couple weeks, and I've done my best to avoid a definitive answer, not out of coyness, but because I really haven't been sure I could be there. Today, though, I decided all of my hesitating was stupid, and so, yes, I shall be there from Friday afternoon until Sunday morning.

And if, after all of my waffling, Mike Allen will still let me be a part of the Mythic reading, I'll even be reading a few sentences of fiction.

Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany

I've spent the past week reading Samuel Delany's early fiction in roughly chronological order, starting with The Jewels of Aptor, then continuing on to The Fall of the Towers trilogy, Babel-17, and Empire Star (which Vintage has conveniently packaged together). (And yes, I realize I've missed The Ballad of Beta 2 -- I misplaced my copy and so decided to continue on until I figure out which pile of books it got buried under.)

The only one of these books I'd read before was Babel-17, the first Delany novel I ever encountered, having been introduced to his work through the stories "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones" and "Aye, and Gomorrah" in anthologies. It's been ages since I read any of Delany's pre-Dhalgren books, and the experience has been illuminating.

Delany's early work is the writing of an extraordinarily intelligent and talented young man, but The Jewels of Aptor and The Fall of the Towers really only possess interest because of what they show us about Delany's progression as a writer, since they contain so many nascent versions of characters, images, situations, and ideas that would gain more subtle and complex presentation later. Even a book like Babel-17, which demonstrates notable breakthroughs in Delany's technique, is minor in comparison to many of the novels that would come later.

The surprise for me in the reading so far has been Empire Star, a novella originally published as an Ace Double with Tom Purdom's The Tree Lord of Imeten. The story was a surprise because I had never seen much reference to it, and so always assumed it was minor and not of much interest. In fact, I preferred it to Babel-17 -- the writing is more compact and efficient, the prose is mostly light instead of leaden, the situations suffer less from Delany's tendency to romanticize poets and criminals (because that romanticization is treated with at least a hint of irony here), and the structure is openly recursive and metafictional in a way that allows the story to feel as rich as any of Delany's novels up to that time.

Empire Star is a bildungsroman and a space opera about a character named Comet Jo, who begins as an uneducated and provincial young man on a primitive planet, then leaves home and ends up affecting the fate of a good portion of the universe. It contains many of the themes that have been consistently prevalent in Delany's work -- questions of freedom, language, culture, perception, art -- and while he would later find more complex and nuanced approaches to these themes, here they seldom weigh the tale down as they do in all of his earlier novels (and some of the later ones, for that matter). Empire Star also shows Delany becoming better at exposition; Babel-17 had been superior to the previous four books, but Empire Star is nearly free of any moments where background information is presented through awkward and obvious dialogue. The tone of the writing is different, too. In addition to the sometimes-hardboiled/sometimes-purple prose common to Delany's early work, there is a new playfulness and even irony to the writing -- for the first time, Delany is not just trying to write a better version of a traditional SF formula, he is letting himself chuckle at the fun such a formula allows. After all, a book called Empire Star by a writer named Muels Aranlyde (yes, an anagram) was mentioned in Babel-17, where it was said to be one of the "Comet Jo" books and "a lot of fun". (This dialogue occurs on a page of Babel-17 devoted to a discussion of the intersections and complications of fiction and reality. And Muels Aranlyde is a character in Delany's Empire Star along with Comet Jo.)

I've sometimes wondered what a good introduction to Delany's work might be for someone who doesn't want to jump right in to the densest of his books. The short stories are certainly a good place to start, but they don't particularly prepare a reader for many of the complexities of the novels. Perhaps Nova or The Einstein Intersection. Today, though, it seems to me that Empire Star offers the most effective and appealing introduction to so many of the ideas and techniques Delany would employ later.

27 June 2006

Strange Gravitational Force Discovered by VanderMeers

MANCHESTER, NH -- Renowned gravitologists Jeff and Ann VanderMeer have discovered a strangely focused gravitational force in southern New Hampshire -- a force that has prevented them from returning to their home state of Florida.

Ann VanderMeer said, "As far as we can tell, this gravitational force only affects us, though it's possible many other people are affected, and we are simply too gravitized to be able to communicate with them."

The VanderMeers discovered the force on Sunday, June 25, when they first tried to leave New Hampshire. "At that time," Jeff VanderMeer explained, "we believed the crossing of our personal gravitations with those of Eric Schaller, who was flying back to New Hampshire from Ames, Iowa, prevented our return to Florida, but that hypothesis has subsequently been contradicted by further events. We met Dr. Schaller at the Manchester airport so that we could study him in his native environment, and we discovered that his gravitational forces had only been slightly alterred by his time away, and they did not interfere with ours at all. Nonetheless, his tales of gaseous emissions supported previous evidence that Ames, Iowa has some pretty strange gravity."

Asked about their current hypothesis for their gravitational misfortunes, Ann VanderMeer said, "We expect it's a unique and coincidental convergence of forces that include, but are not limited to, one-way streets in Manchester, Matt Cheney's cat, and surprisingly effective but ostensibly insipid ways of choosing World Cup Soccer teams to root for."

"Nonetheless," Jeff VanderMeer said, "we have enjoyed being marooned in Manchester, because it has allowed us to indulge one of our other passions, which is the study of puppetry. We had no idea the puppet shows in Manchester are so varied and unique. The material we have collected here will allow us to extend our renown from the field of gravitology to the field of puppetology. We could not believe what folk singers accomplished with sock puppets. Amazing!"

The VanderMeers continue to study the gravitational forces affecting them, and hope to escape back home to Florida in the near future, or at least before the 2008 presidential primary season begins. In the meantime, care packages and hate mail can be sent to the New Hampshire State Hospital for the Gravitationally Challenged, where the VanderMeers are currently conducting their research.

23 June 2006

Cemetery Man

Not being anything more than an occasional viewer of horror movies, I hadn't heard of Cemetery Man (aka Dellamorte Dellamore) until Dave Kehr mentioned it in his "New DVDs" column in the New York Times. It sounded like good fun, and not more intellectual than my brain can handle right now, and so I asked the Netflix gods to send it my way, and they did.

Cemetery Man has all the best elements of a low-budget horror movie -- special effects where the strings used to fly items are visible, cheesey music, gratuitous sex and violence, hilariously bad dialogue, terrible acting -- and yet it's also got some good acting, some clever dialogue, good zombie gore, and a surprisingly intelligent narrative overall. It's some sort of cousin of Shaun of the Dead (but with more nudity, because Rupert Everett is the sort of leading man one does want to see naked as much as possible).

Set in an Italian town where everyone speaks, or tries to speak, in a British accent, Cemetery Man tells the story of Francesco Dellamorte, caretaker of a cemetery where people come back to life soon after they are buried. He's used to this, and has gotten to be quite a good shot with a pistol, effortlessly putting bullets into the heads of the dead. His sidekick is a somewhat-less-than-genius sort of fellow named Gnaghi, who ends up falling in love with a severed head. Love is a running theme in the film, because Francesco has failed to find any, and rumors about his impotence and even his genital status have spread through town. Why, Francesco wonders, should anyone bother with love when everybody's just going to die, anyway? Then he meets the woman of his dreams. She's impressed with his ossuary. They kiss like Magritte's "Lovers". But her father comes back to life and kills her. Whoops. Francesco begins to think he was right about this love thing: It just leads to suffering. Every other attempt at love doesn't work out, either, because Francesco's easy to take advantage of, and the women he decides to love (all of whom look alike), reel him in and break his heart. Clearly, the only way to deal with this is to start killing living people. But even at that task, he can't get the credit that's his due. In the end, he and Gnaghi go to the edge of the world and have a transcendent moment of their own.

It's a remarkably touching movie by the end -- remarkably, because on the surface, there's very little reason for us to have a lot of sympathy for Francesco. Everett's performance is so well balanced, so delightfully deadpan, skillfully conveying the character's indifference to the vapid, uninspiring world around him that he somehow becomes endearing instead of being what so many similar characters in movies and books are -- pathetic. And Gnaghi's great, too. I wanted one of my own. His character could have been a silly stereotype of a village idiot, and while it certainly has plenty of those qualities, he ends up (much like Ed in Shaun of the Dead) a full character.

None of the women in the movie are much more than cardboard objects of lust, but because the film is so stuck within Francesco's point of view (complete with voiceovers), there's not much else they could have been. It's not like any of the male characters, other than Gnaghi, have any development, either. Francesco sees the world as populated by people not much worth his time, or people he obviously has neither the emotional experience or capacity to understand as anything other than figures onto which he can project his own desires and anxieties. How we interpret Francesco -- who may just be a sociopath -- determines much of how we interpret the other characters in the movie.

Regardless of how anything is interpreted, there are plenty of moments in Cemetery Man that are, however you figure their purpose or meaning, just plain fun and funny. My own favorite moment involves a bunch of boy scouts at a funeral and the song they sing. (Actually, every scene involving the boy scouts had me cracking up, but I tend to find boy scouts inherently humorous.)

Cemetery Man isn't particularly suspenseful, because the humor often undercuts the suspense, and Francesco's blase attitude toward everything undercuts what's left, but it's nonetheless a movie full of surprises, because the story twists and turns enough to provide plot elements for five less carefully crafted films, and the thematic underpinning to it all is strong enough to keep viewers interested even when events seem almost random. The ending is surprising and haunting, but in an emotional rather than horrific way.

20 June 2006

A Conversation with Tina Pohlman

A few months back, Richard Nash of Soft Skull Press told me I'd probably enjoy talking with Tina Pohlman, editorial director of Harvest Books (the paperback imprint of Harcourt), because she had just acquired the paperback rights to three of my favorite books of 2005: Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link, Oh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet, and The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia. Indeed, this sounded like an extraordinary person, and so I contacted Tina and asked if she was willing to be interviewed. She was.

Where did you begin in publishing, and how did you get to where you are now?

I started as an editorial assistant at Houghton Mifflin in 1993. Then I went to Anchor Books/Doubleday in 1995 where I was promoted a couple times. Then Anchor was moved from Doubleday to the Knopf Publishing Group to join forces with Vintage Books and become Vintage-Anchor. I was with Vintage-Anchor for about a year and a half I guess. All told, I was with Anchor for about 5 1/2 years. And I learned from some of the best people in the business how to publish paperback reprints, Martha Levin in particular. Though even then, as now, I always had a few hardcovers going on, as well as paperback originals.

Then I went to Carroll & Graf in 2001, where I stayed until 2004. I only published originals at C&G, though I did look after the paperbacks of my own hardcovers. But there really wasn't a paperback publishing program there. Then, in 2004 I came to Harcourt/Harvest.

I am currently the editorial director of Harvest Books, which is the paperback imprint of Harcourt. So I oversee that list and acquire reprints and some originals for it. I do this because I love paperbacks and paperback publishing. The reprint side is a very different kind of thing from acquiring originals, but of course it's related.


What is it about paperbacks and paperback publishing that you particularly love?

I love paperbacks, the physical objects because they’re portable, flexible, fit nicely in your hand. Obviously, they’re cheaper too. I just personally prefer sitting down with a paperback in my hand than with a hardcover.

I love paperback publishing for several reasons. First of all, you get to cover a bunch of houses, see what other people are doing, and you have a great excuse to read a wide variety of books. If I am somewhat specialized in the kinds of originals I do (almost all new fiction and occasionally a memoir), I can cast my net much wider and indulge other interests while performing the paperback reprint part of my job.

Another great thing about paperback reprint publishing is that in the process you learn a lot about the business of publishing. Because when you’re considering the acquisition of a paperback reprint, you have to look at the entire publishing picture: How many copies have sold? What kind of publicity is the book/author getting? How else is the house promoting the books? Advertising? Is the author working on another book? Is the hardcover house setting up this book in a way that will help us publish it successfully in paperback? Are they doing things wrong that we think we could do right? Etc.

Finally, one thing you have to remember about paperbacks is that this is the format in which a book spends most of its life. The hardcover’s only out for a year, usually, and then there’s the paperback, where the book lives on. So you have a this-is-the-first-day-of-the-rest-of-your-life feeling when you’re preparing a book’s paperback publication. Like you’re sending it off into its adult life or something.


After acquiring the paperback rights for a book published in hardcover, what is the role of the editor? We tend to think of editors as people who slave over manuscripts with authors, but if a book has been published once already, what, then, is left for the editor to do?

Basically as a paperback editor your job is mostly about positioning and packaging -- marketing, really. You have the benefit of hindsight when you look at how the hardcover did, and you try to figure out what you can do differently that might be better. Or you figure out that you should leave well enough -- or great -- alone. Sometimes merely changing a package can do wonders for a book that performed poorly in hardcover.

Then you try to figure out what the author can do to continue promoting the book in paperback. This usually involves reaching out to book clubs, or reading groups, who like to buy their books in paperback. And then you hope that you catch their attention. Our publicity and marketing departments do a lot of this work. Sometimes we hire freelancers to write up a reading group guide, and sometimes the editor works with the author, and they write one together. These reading group guides are usually posted on line. Some houses print them inside the book or print them separately.

Another market you try to reach in paperback is the classroom. You try to get course adoptions. You attend academic conferences and feature books you think might get picked up. This is very difficult, but it happens, and when it does, it often means a nice long life of steady sales for a book. There is actually a bestseller list for the National Association of College Stores, and this is a very interesting list to look at.

Aside from the marketing stuff, sometimes you do a little editorial work, but that usually just amounts to little line edits and/or corrections. Sometimes you might work with the author on an afterword, or maybe an index -- to give the paperback a little of that good old "added value."


How is your approach different when you are working on a hardcover versus working on a paperback original?

My approach, editorially, with paperback originals and hardcovers isn’t really any different. Our sales, marketing, and publicity goals are the same too. We often choose to do something as a paperback original because we feel we can get out more copies in that format. This tends to be the case, most often, with new fiction, because people are generally more hesitant to take a chance on a new fiction writer if they have to shell out twenty-something bucks.


When going after a book that you know you want to get the rights to, and you know other publishers are after it, what other than money will help you secure the deal?

That question's sort of hard to answer, because there are all sorts of things you can do, and every situation is different. You can fiddle around with payouts and give up first serial rights and perhaps territories if you’ve started out with an offer for world rights or something. You can throw in a performance bonus or a bestseller bonus. Or sometimes it just comes down to having a really great meeting or conversation with the author.


What attracted you to The People of Paper, Magic for Beginners, and Oh Pure and Radiant Heart? What other books have you acquired recently that excite you?

I bought The People of Paper, Magic for Beginners, and Oh Pure and Radiant Heart first and foremost because I read them and fell in love with them. I also realized that all three writers were clearly going to keep writing wonderful books, so I saw lots of publishing potential for the future, which just gave me another good reason to acquire them.

All three were published by small presses, who are often more likely to sell paperback reprint rights, so I knew that deals could probably be made. But at the same time, all three books garnered attention form other reprint houses, so I had to pursue them rather aggressively.

Two other books I recently bought reprint rights to, which are on the Fall/Winter 2006-2007 Harvest list, are Laila Lalami's Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits (from Algonquin) and Michelle Tea's Rose of No Man's Land (from MacAdam/Cage). They're both novels. Lalami's is a moving and elegantly constructed tale of Moroccans illegally crossing the Strait of Gibraltar for Spain. Tea's is a hilarious and wild lesbian coming-of-age story set in crappy suburban Massachusetts.

A couple other reprints I've bought for Harvest are Temple Grandin's bestselling Animals in Translation (from Scribner), a nonfiction book about autism and animal behavior, and two books by Christine Schutt: Florida (from Triquarterly/Northwestern University Press) and A Day, a Night, Another Day, Summer (also from Triquarterly).

I also acquire originals, both paperback (as I mentioned above) and hardcover. Most of the originals I acquire are fiction, and occasionally there's a memoir in there. I published Tim Guest's memoir, My Life in Orange -- a wonderful book about growing up around the world in the communes of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh -- last year as a paperback original, and it did very well for us both critically and commercially. I also published a short story collection called The Task of This Translator by Todd Hasak-Lowy as a paperback original last year, and it was well reviewed (including a rave from Richard Eder in the daily New York Times) and sold nicely.

Right now I have a hardcover novel out (on the Harcourt list) that was just published in April and is getting one amazing review after another. AND it's selling! It's called Whiteman by Tony D'Souza. It was excerpted in the New Yorker, Playboy, and Tin House, has been reviewed everywhere, and we just went back to press for our second printing. It's a story about a guy who goes to the Ivory Coast post 9/11 to do relief work, just as the country is deteriorating into a bloody civil war between Christians and Muslims. It's very funny, very sexy, and very sad. I love it.


How do you know you want to invest the time and resources to acquire and work on a particular book?

This question is always harder to answer than it should be. As far as fiction goes, when I start reading something, what usually has to grab me first is voice, diction, tone, prose style. I also need a character, characters. Plot, of course, but I don't have a lot of requirements when it comes to plot.

I like dark psychological journeys much more than I like clever intellectual experiments. Though I love writers with a keen sense of the absurd, and I'm not against cleverness as long as there's substance underneath it.

Just look at The People of Paper. There is a book that could so easily have gone wrong. It's a testament to Plascencia's huge talent that not only does it work, it doesn't feel like something that's "working"; it feels like the story was meant to be told in exactly this way. To be honest, I was kind of amazed that I liked this book, let alone fell in love with it. When I did an initial drive-by of the book (you know, the way you pick up a book, read the cover copy, glance inside, thumb through it, smell it, etc, before you start reading it), I almost just threw it back on the pile. But I don't know, I always think I have this kind of sixth sense, and thanks to that sixth sense, I threw it in my bag instead. Took it home. Started reading it Sunday afternoon and finished it that night. Could not put it down.

This is why I love my job.


Will the paperback of People of Paper maintain the same interior design?

Yes, the interior design of People of Paper will be the same, with one exception: We will not be doing the die-cuts. The author has come up with an alternative that we both like, though. You’ll have to wait and see! The trim size will also be the same, which is very unusual. I like to stick with standard paperback trim, but it’s just impossible to do with this book. We have a great new cover design too, which is well suited to the paperback format.


How do you ever find time to do all the reading you do?

I don’t know how I find the time. Seriously, I don’t. I hate the idea of "time management," and I don’t really have any program or allotted reading time. I’m not a very disciplined person. I read when I need to, when I feel like it, which happens to be most of the time. Though I guess I have pretty much unconsciously reserved Sunday nights for reading -- except when I’m watching "Big Love".

19 June 2006

Claude Cahun

I spent some time in Provincetown, Massachusetts with friends this weekend, but we only had time to see one film at the film festival that was happening there, a documentary by Barbara Hammer, Lover Other, about the surrealist writer and artist Claude Cahun (Lucy Schwob) and her step-sister/partner Marcel Moore (Suzanne Malherbe).

The best parts of the film were Cahun and Moore's artwork and the interviews with people who had known them when they lived on the island of Jersey, where, during the German occupation, they resisted the Nazis and were imprisoned. Unfortunately, Hammer tried to make the film into something more than a documentary by having actresses portray Cahun and Moore for some overwrought soliliquies and used annoying and amateurish visual stylizations in an attempt to replicate with film the effect of the original art, an unfortunate choice when the original work is so distinctive that any such manipulation is nothing more than distracting, and sometimes simply embarrassing, like particularly bad public-access TV.

Cahun and Moore's work was lucky to survive World War II and the artists' deaths (Cahun in 1954, Moore in 1972). It was not recognized as important and groundbreaking by the general art world for quite some time, which seems strange when you look at the images themselves.

The playfulness of the poses and roles that Cahun assumes gain a strange seriousness from the deadpan facial expressions, the often gender-neutral costuming, the lack of context for the figures -- where is this, who is this, what is going on? The pictures are worlds unto themselves, vivid in their oddity, rich with emotional suggestion, but the emotions they suggest seem a little bit different to me every time I look at one of the pictures. Sometimes there seems to be a profound melancholy within them, sometimes a beautifully coy "let's pretend" goofiness, and more often than not a combination of feelings that can't quite be named. Cahun's body is the subject of most of the photographs, but it is a nearly-blank body, one she and Moore recognized could be reconfigured and reimagined. Because of this, Cahun can be seen as a precursor to artists like Cindy Sherman, but her work makes sense within its own time, too, given how many artists were exploring ideas of subjectivity and how many writers were experimenting with voice and point of view -- Cahun is not so far away from Virginia Woolf's Orlando, really.

15 June 2006

Bat Segundo, Poet of the Podcast

Donald Hall may think he's something for being Poet Laureate of the United States, but as far as I'm concerned, he's no Bat Segundo.

Bat can deny it all he wants, but I know this is love.

As for the things I say on the podcast ... well, considering how little sleep or food I'd had over the course of BEA, it's a wonder I uttered anything even remotely coherent.

14 June 2006

Donald Hall, Poet Laureate

Donald Hall has been named Poet Laureate of the United States, and though Hall is not by any means my favorite poet, I like his personality a lot, and it's always nice to see a neighbor get some recognition.

Because Hall lives down the road from me, I've had the chance to hear him read and lecture quite a few times, and have never failed to be at the very least entertained. Hall's poem "Without" (in the book of the same title) is one of the most viscerally, beautifully sad pieces of writing I've ever encountered. I much prefer his work when he reads it to when it is on the page, because his cigarette-scarred voice is somehow perfect for the lines he writes.

Hall's a good choice for the role of laureate, because his real strength is not so much his own poetry as his support for other poets, and the position is one that's as much about politics as it is about poetry. He's definitely a denizen of the more traditional and (aesthetically) conservative wing of the poetry world, and often passionately so, but he has nonetheless supported quite a wide range of writers. He helped found and continues to guide the Eagle Pond Poetry Series at a local college, a reading series that's often diverse and illuminating.

One of his most lasting contributions to poetry may be his founding of the Poets On Poetry series for the University of Michigan Press. When I was an undergraduate, I devoured all the books in the series that I could find at the library, and learned more about poetry by doing so than through any classes I ever took. Those books gave me a sense of poetry as something people were willing to fight about and live for, and they pointed me in directions I would never have discovered on my own. I hope that in his new position as Poet Laureate, Hall will be able to bring more attention not just to one style of poetry, but to the wide range of poetries being created throughout the country.

13 June 2006

Age and Nostalgia

Brian Bieniowski makes an interesting point in the comments to this post, and it's one that is, I think, worth opening up for discussion. Talking about Dave Itzkoff's column, he says,
His column seems too calculatedly ageist for me to take very seriously, as though his essential conceit is that we still shouldn't be trusting anyone over the age of thirty. It is too easy to diss nostalgia when it's your elders' nostalgia. Within the Itzkoff Retirement Home, 2040, where everyone reminisces of the days of internet fiascos and flame-wars, I can imagine the furious youth flaming the sepia-toned Ben Rosenbaum and Christopher Rowe short-story collections, and all that old-fogey blog crit nobody reads anymore.
This reminded me of a conversation I had with a writer friend some time back, when he said he looked forward to the day when he and I would be like the old guys on "The Muppet Show" who booed everything and hated everybody. "Nobody's writing anything worth reading anymore!" we'll cry. "Not like when we were in our prime!" ("Remember when we all had our blogs and hadn't had our brains uploaded into the Bush-Clinton Imperial Library yet? Oh, those were the days!")

I would like to disagree a bit with Brian that it's all about younger up-and-coming writers, though. There is a generational difference within the SF community in certain ways, in that a lot of the younger writers did not rise up through fandom, and their influences include more weird pop culture than they do Asimov or Heinlein, but there is also a segment of younger readers and writers who are interested in the traditional core of SF, and there are also a lot of writers working their way toward their own retirement homes who are not simply trying to rewrite the stories they wrote when they first got published. I don't care a bit about the age of a writer, because their age doesn't tell me anything about how they write or what they're interested in. The writers who interest me are the writers who surprise me, and surprise can come from a writer of any age, just as a writer of any age can be derivative and unimaginative.

What I try to fight against in myself, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, is the ossification of perspective -- I don't want to end up twenty or thirty years from now thinking that the only type of writing that is interesting is the kind of writing that was exciting in 2006. I hope that I will change enough as a person and a writer, and that the world of writing and the world at large will change enough in that time for me to discover new types of stories to appreciate and new ways of appreciating them. If not, I can't imagine any reason to keep reading and writing.

Getting the Links Out

10 June 2006

Dave Itzkoff Ponders His Inner Child

I had a fairly negative reaction to Dave Itzkoff's first science fiction column at the New York Times, but I'm more impressed by his second, particularly because he praises Christopher Rowe's marvelous story "The Voluntary State" and Benjamin Rosenbaum's fine story "Embracing-the-New". Such praise shows taste and thoughtfulness. I also thought Itzkoff's ideas about nostalgia within science fiction are astute, though I am far more wary of nostalgia than he.

I have one major concern with the column, however, and that is Itzkoff's bizarre decision to undermine his credibility by quoting an "online critic". Doesn't he realize he's writing for one of the great newspapers of the world? Why does he stoop to giving credibility to some yahoo with a blog? Itzkoff is a good and clearly intelligent writer, but such a tremendous lapse of judgment within an otherwise interesting column may be a sign not simply of an undigested inner child, but of impending psychosis.

09 June 2006

Kinsey, Sturgeon, and "The Sex Opposite"

Continuing where we left off with some thoughts on sexology and science fiction, let's consider some of the similarities between Alfred Kinsey and Theodore Sturgeon.

The Kinsey Scale was not the first time a continuum theory of sexuality was proposed. Karl-Heinrich Ulrichs, Magnus Hirschfeld, Sigmund Freud, and Havelock Ellis each proposed a theory of bisexuality as the core state of human sexuality, which to some extent or another brought them toward a continuum theory. As the field of endocrinology developed, biological research confirmed the variability of sexuality in humans and other animals, while at the same time anthropological work by people such as Franz Boas and Margaret Mead revealed varying attitudes toward sexuality and gender in different cultural contexts. Mead developed a continuum model of masculinity and femininity, as did the psychologists and intelligence researchers Lewis Terman and Catherine Cox Miles.

Much of the above information comes from Jennifer Terry's An American Obsession: Science, Medicine, and Homosexuality in Modern Society. Terry says of these theories and studies:
As in the earlier inversion model, homosexuals were imagined as intermediate creatures situated between normal males and normal females. But the crucial difference in models generated by research from the 1930s was that even normal men and women were discovered to have qualities and characteristics previously associated only with the "opposite" sex. By signifying a middle position between the poles of masculinity and femininity, homosexuals were situated conceptually in greater proximity to the norm than earlier models of inversion had permitted. For if the difference between the sexes was a matter of degree and not kind, then the homosexual could be conceptualized as sharing many qualities with the rest of the population. But ... such news did not alter the popular perception that homosexuals belonged to a distinguishable and pathological group, set apart from the normal healthy population. A case can be made ... that conceiving of homosexuals as similar to heterosexuals worried many people. This worry led to renewed efforts to determine and police the differences between, on the one hand, heterosexuals who were deemed to express normal gender characteristics and sexual desire and, on the other hand, those who were assessed as abnormal because they showed "sex variant" tendencies. (176)
Then came World War II, which had all sorts of effects on conceptions of gender and sexuality (as had World War I in similar ways) -- as the military's need for more and more soldiers increased, people who had previously been banned from service, including homosexuals, were allowed in. Meanwhile, on the home front, women participated in work previously reserved for men. Kinsey worked on his research throughout this time, and in 1948 published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, which showed that homosexual behavior was far more common than generally acknowledged. Kinsey noted that "there is only about half of the male population whose sexual behavior is exclusively heterosexual, and there are only a few percent who are exclusively homosexual." Just as noticeable as the statistics were Kinsey's attitudes -- he did not condemn the behaviors he reported as degenerate, pathological, or perverse.

Of course, Kinsey came in for plenty of criticism, both of his statistics and of his attitudes. As the Cold War and McCarthyism filled the public consciousness, "perversion" became linked with Communism. Terry notes that
Cold War homophobic purges were as much about gender transgression as about homosexuality per se. Arthur Schlesinger's The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom (1949) warned against effeminacy in all areas of government policy-making, which he believed was increasing with the breakdown of clear distinctions between masculinity and femininity. The "vital center" was characterized by a "new virility," a crucial change from the "emasculated" ruling class of Henry Wallace's Progressive ranks. In Schlesinger's words, communism was "something secret, sweaty, and furtive like nothing so much, in the phrase of one wise observer of modern Russia, as homosexuals in a boys' school." (336)
And then there was Theodore Sturgeon, who, just as Kinsey's work was being released and gaining notoriety, published one story after another that portrayed love as a many-varied thing, and offered compassionate (if sometimes simplistic or condescending) portrayals of characters who did not fit into rigid stereotypes of sexuality or gender.

There are a number of Sturgeon stories I could discuss here -- "Bianca's Hands" and "The World Well Lost" would also be appropriate -- but I want to offer a few thoughts on his story "The Sex Opposite", originally published in the Fall 1952 issue of Fantastic and available in E Pluribus Unicorn and Selected Stories. It's not one of Sturgeon's best stories -- the plot is awkward, the writing is comically hardboiled, the characters are simplistic. But the ideas it expresses, and the time of its publication, make it work well for this discussion.

"The Sex Opposite" was one of Sturgeon's earliest stories specifically about sex and sexuality. Its basic structure is that of a mystery story: Two people have been killed in Central Park, and a medical examiner named Muhlenberg and a (female) newspaper reporter named Budgie try to piece together what happened. At first, Muhlenberg doesn't want to reveal any information to Budgie, but as she continues to press, he lets her know that the couple was not a romantic couple, but rather conjoined twins. A fire breaks out in the morgue, and Muhlenberg discovers that the corpses have been destroyed before an autopsy could be performed. On his way home that night, he stops at a bar for a drink and meets a woman with whom he feels a profound connection. They return to his apartment, read poetry to each other, listen to records, and then she tells him to meet her the next day at a seedy bar "down in the warehouse district", and she leaves. The next night, when he goes to the bar, Budgie is there, and tells him about having spent the day with a man who made her feel tremendously happy and fulfilled, but whom she never touched. Moments later, the man appears. Except when Muhlenberg sees him, he sees the woman he met the night before. The rest of the story is an explanation of the nature of the twin who was killed in Central Park: it was, as originally thought, two beings, but they had been in the midst of reproductive syzygy -- "A non-sexual interflow between the nuclei of two animals" -- when they were pulled apart and killed by muggers. The creature arranges for the muggers to be killed in a fight outside the bar while Muhlenberg and Budgie watch, then wipes their memories clean and disappears, leaving them with a profound love for each other.

Thus, the creature embodies what humans would consider two separate genders at once. It tells Muhlenberg and Budgie that its species has been responsible for creating the feelings that produced most of human culture. Budgie asks the creature why they have stayed hidden for so long.
"'We have to hide,' the other said gently. 'You still kill anything that's . . . different.'"
A species that had brought so much creative force to humans -- creatures of tremendous power and beauty -- must hide away because of the murderous human fear of anything "abnormal". The abnormality here, though, is one that is presented as being entirely natural -- it is contextualized with a story of paramecia, which reminds readers that nature provides various models of sex, gender, and sexuality. At the same time, there are some hints that nature may not have to be the only limit to pleasure, because both Muhlenberg and Budgie experienced a kind of joy with the creature that they had never experienced with a human before. In the end, what matters for everyone in the story is that joy, a kind of love that is ideal and magnificent, a love that transcends culture, morality, and even species.

Kinsey would have found much to agree with in that attitude.

Soon after "The Sex Opposite" appeared, Kinsey published his second study, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. Meanwhile, a young ex-G.I. named George Jorgensen was in the midst of the surgeries that would allow him to become Christine Jorgensen, who would be, for a brief time, among the most famous women in the world. In How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States, Joanne Meyerowitz writes that
Jorgensen eventually moved from current event to yesterday's news, but as other stories of sex change appeared and reappeared, the media reminded the public that manhood, womanhood, and the boundaries between them were neither as obvious nor as impermeable as they once had seemed.
Kinsey and Sturgeon both contributed to this reminding, one through science and one through fiction.

The F&SF Meme

Blogger has been buggy for the past couple days, so I haven't been able to post, but it seems cleared up now, and I can pass on the information that Paul Jessup's leftover issues of F&SF will be going to Mark Siegel, who is considering opening up the passing-along of magazine backissues to titles other than F&SF, creating an ongoing physical meme.

06 June 2006

Elsewheres

05 June 2006

More Pontification

Jose at MemeTherapy has now posted an interview with me. Subjects include death, writing, death, voices, death, time, death, life, and death.

In the Future

This is just a quick post to say that I have various pontifications about the future and imagined futures elsewhere:

Jose at the MemeTherapy blog sent me a bunch of questions I wasn't the least bit qualified to offer comment on, but I did anyway, and the results are being posted, along with other people's more interesting responses, as "Brain Parades" on future shock, wiki democracy, and technological alienation.

Also, over at Strange Horizons, I have a review of One Million A.D., an anthology of far future stories edited by Gardner Dozois, wherein I pontificate on fantasy vs. science fiction, imagination, dullness, writing, etc. I wish this had been able to be one of the joint reviews SH sometimes runs, where people offer differing perspectives on a book, because I would love to have seen how somebody who is more of a fan of hard SF than I am reacted to it. Lacking that, here are links to some other reviews: Visions of Paradise on "Good Mountain" by Robert Reed and the rest of the book; SF Signal review; SF Site review; Best SF.net review.

03 June 2006

The Theory of Us

Clive James has a theory. It is that there is a group of people out there called "us" and they are ordinary, normal human beings without pretension, people who like to be entertained and yet who aren't afraid to think a little bit. He is of this us, just more so. That's why he and people like him are good movie critics. They watch movies the same way us do, and they like what us like, except they like it more eloquently.

Clive James says this is the difference between theorists and nontheorists. Theorists see stuff us don't see. But they're also blind. They like bad movies, because they don't know how to watch movies. Us know how to watch movies.

Movies are about first impressions, says us. "Or, to put it less drastically, in the movies there are no later impressions without a first impression, because you will have stopped watching." ("You" is one of us. Because you wouldn't read Clive James if you were not. You would have stopped reading.) Theorists, the non-us, watch movies they don't like. They're weirdos. Not normal. Not like us.

Us know that story is everything. "No story, no movie." This is a truth created by God, a fact: "A movie has to glue you to your seat even when it's pretending not to." Because otherwise us might do something like read Proust.

No, Proust wrote books, and books can do all sorts of things. There are good books that do not glue us to our seats, good books that do not seem good on a first impression. Us know this, just as us know that movies are not books. Movies must do one thing: adhere us with story glue. If a non-us you says a movie does anything else, that you is a theorist, because theorists like simple schemas. And they write badly, because a theorist is a critic with a "hulking voice [that] gets in the way of the projector beam", and us all know that good writing does not let sound interfere with light.

Hooray for us!

Happy Thought for the Day

People talk about the happy life, but that's the happy life when you don't care any longer if you live or die. You only get there after a long time and many misfortunes. And do you think you are left there? Never.

As soon as you have reached this heaven of indifference, you are pulled out of it. From your heaven you have to go back to hell. When you are dead to the world, the world often rescues you, if only to make a figure of fun out of you.

--Jean Rhys
Good Morning, Midnight

02 June 2006

"The Gonads are the Very Citadels of Sex"

One of the mottoes that has served me well in life is, "When all else fails, talk about sex hormones."

Classes for my masters degree are winding to an end, and the last one, soon to be finished, has been "Sexuality and Science", a marvelous exploration of everything from gay genes to intersex surgery to the case of the female orgasm. I wrote a paper on two SF stories, David H. Keller's "The Feminine Metamorphosis" and Theodore Sturgeon's "The Sex Opposite" and their relation to the sexology of their time. It's an adequate paper, but not much more, since I've been so scattered and busy that I couldn't give it the time it deserved, but the research was great fun, and I thought I'd share a little bit of what I discovered about a bizarre man named Eugen Steinach. (Well, I don't know if he was bizarre himself, but his experiments certainly were.)

Steinach was fascinated by sex hormones, and in 1912 and 1913 began experimenting with guinea pigs, neutering infants and then inserting glands from guinea pigs of the opposite sex into them. Writing about these experiments later, he was able to insert such marvelous sentences as, "For, after all, the gonads are the very citadels of sex." (That comes from his 1940 book Sex and Life, p.61.)

The effect of the gland transplants on the guinea pigs was that the animals took on characteristics and behaviors of guinea pigs of the opposite sex (e.g., formerly female guinea pigs mounted unaltered females). For a good analysis of these experiments, see Anne Fausto-Sterling's book Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality.)

Steinach didn't stop with animals. In 1915, a colleague of his, Robert Lichtenstern, performed a testicular transplant on a man wounded in World War I. The soldier's testicles had been lost as the result of a gunshot wound, and so Lichtenstern transplanted into him the undescended testicles of another man conveniently waiting for surgery for this condition. Of the man who received the transplant, Steinach wrote:
His appearance was improved and his intelligence was strikingly increased: the facial expression now became lively, the adipose tissue on the neck gradually disappeared, and the moustache grew again. He married a year after the operation, and eight years later (Lichtenstern's paper is dated 1924) all his secondary sex characteristics were in normal condition, his body hair of normal masculine distribution. He had to shave himself several times a week, just as before his injury. He was normally muscular and could satisfactorily pursue his calling as a farmer. Neither had he any complaint about his psychosexual life, even though he has lost his capacity for propagation. To the particulars supplied by Lichtenstern in the year 1924 may here be added that Leopold M., even today, more than twenty years after the operation, is still quite normal in masculine appearance, intelligence, and sex instinct, and enjoys a happy married life. (76-77)
Steinach was inspired, and quickly joined with Lichtenstern to perform surgery that he would not write about in Sex and Life -- surgery to cure homosexuals. In a 1945 overview of Steinach's work for The Scientific Monthly, Harry Benjamin wrote:
In 1918 ... Steinach and the Viennese urologist Lichtenstern published a paper with the optimistic title "Conversion of Homosexuality through Exchange of Puberty Glands." This was a practical application of Steinach's researches. Homosexual men were castrated and another man's cryptorchic (undescended) testicle, which consists of predominantly interstitial tissue, was implanted. The homosexual tendencies disappeared and a normal (heterosexual) libido developed. Such, at least, was the conclusion that the authors drew from the report of their patients.
Benjamin expressed skepticism about the "success" of the experiments, noting that "homosexual" is not a simple category or condition that can be isolated and treated. Anne Fausto-Sterling said of the experiments on gay men, ""As time went on ... the failure of the operations became evident, and after 1923 no further operations were done."

Soon after, though, Steinach became famous as a proponent of rejuvenation therapies, and he created the Steinach Operation (PDF), a vasectomy surgery that would supposedly revive and prolong male potency -- its supporters included, among others, W.B. Yeats and Sigmund Freud.

Eventually, Steinach's work fell out of fashion and he was considered more of a quack than anything, but he is a useful exemplar of scientific attitudes and assumptions about sex, gender, and sexuality in the first part of the 20th century. Which brings us to David H. Keller's story "The Feminine Metamorphosis" (published originally in Science Wonder Stories in 1929 and reprinted in Sam Moskowitz's anthology When Women Rule, which I discovered via Justine Larbalestier's The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction). Keller's story involves a group of smart, liberated women, angry about inequalities of work and pay, who go to China, perform numerous "gonadectomies" on Chinese men, and transplant the male extracts into themselves. Soon, they are men, but men with all the wiles and fashion sense of women, which means they can take over the entire world if they're not stopped (of course, they are, and everything is returned to the natural order God created). I can't resist quoting the story:
We built up an organization and went to China. There we secured material for twenty-five thousand ampules of male gonadal solution, highly concentrated and of uniform strength. We purchased our so-called College in France and there, after all forms of imaginary deaths, our five thousand heroines came. First, they were thoroughly treated with radium and the X-ray to produce bodies that were neutral, as far as sexual characteristics were concerned, and, after that, each one was given five doses of the substance that I was able to isolate and which, for convenience, I called MALE-FINE XXX. In a remarkably short time, these heroines experienced the desired physical changes, their voices deepened, became wonderfully masculine; they developed such growth of hair on the face that they had to begin shaving once a day. There was also a rather typical change in certain deposits of subcutaneous fat. But why go into all these details? It is sufficient to say that five thousand well educated, rather beautiful women entered our French laboratory and five thousand persons who looked like well-bred cultured men left it.
This relates to Steinach not only because of the science and pseudoscience of hormone transplantation, but also because of Steinach's theory of "hormone antagonism", which he described in Sex and Life:
If an ovary is implanted in a male whose testicles are intact, the ovary is unable to hold its own for any length of time, and the same applies to testicles when implanted in the body of a female with normal ovaries. They cannot survive. This lack of accommodation indicates a certain antagonism between the sex glands. (83)
Keller's story is an allegory warning against letting female human beings stray too far from their "natural" roles as wives and mothers. He shows what the liberal women of the time really want to do, which is destroy men. It's not about equality, it's about androcide. At the end of the story, the leader of the masculinized women details her "final dream of a manless world":
We do not want two sexes in this fair world of ours, not as long as one sex can run it so efficiently. But, of course, that sex has to continue on in its existence; we do not plan to destroy humanity. What I have in mind is the perfecting of parthenogenesis. By that I mean the reproduction by virgin females of eggs which develop without being fertilized by the male principle or sperm cell. ... Later on, we will consider the production of females from ovamaters in the laboratory and thus save our mature females the time and suffering of bearing their young. The growth of the young female, from the egg up to the second or third year of life, will be provided for in our Government laboratories and nurseries. I am at work on these problems now, and, just as soon as we feel strong enough to take over the government, I shall be able to present a perfect plan for the development of future feminine generations that will in no way have the curse of masculine associations.
What she doesn't know is that the male gonadal solution is filled with a disease that causes only minor trouble to Chinese men, but that makes anyone else go insane. And so their plan is foiled! The message is clear: If women aspire to leave the roles nature (aka "God" in the story) has created for them, they will decide that men are extraneous and then they will go insane. Just like lesbians.

(As for the other story I wrote about in the paper, Sturgeon's "Sex Opposite", all I said was that Sturgeon and Alfred Kinsey had similar attitudes. I'll post some thoughts on that later.)