30 September 2006

"The Art of Comedy"

My odd and illustrated story "The Art of Comedy" has now been posted at Web Conjunctions. (This is the story from which I read at BookPeople in Austin in March during the AWP Conference.)

29 September 2006

In Which I Blather

One Story has now posted an excerpt from my upcoming story with them and an interview, which I mention in case any of you are curious or really really really bored.

28 September 2006

"Descending" by Thomas M. Disch

I haven't read as much of the short fiction of Thomas M. Disch as I should. I have read a couple of his novels and a lot of his poetry, and have admired and enjoyed much of it. Yet I've only read parts of 334, a collection of linked stories some people consider his masterpiece, and at most two or three other stories.

Now that I have read "Descending", one of his earliest published stories, I am amazed that I haven't paid more attention to Disch before. It is good, perhaps, to discover writers with large bodies of wonderful work that is unfamiliar to you, because it means there are tremendous riches to be encountered, but there is also a certain sadness, even an anger: How could I have been so stupid as not to appreciate this work until now?

James Schoffstall has written perceptively about this story already, and so I don't feel compelled to revisit its themes and subject matter, because why add to what has already been done so well? What I'd like to point out about "Descending" is how excellent it is purely on a technical level, because this is a story I would use with aspiring writers as an exemplary model.

What most impresses me about "Descending" is how much Disch wrings from his premise. Often the difference for me between short stories that impress me and short stories that seem merely competent is not the difference between a good idea and a bad idea, but rather it is the difference between a story that has a good idea and doesn't do a lot with it and a story that takes an idea -- perhaps even a somewhat lackluster idea -- and explores it to the utmost. Of course, other things matter -- style, characterization, etc. -- but those other things are intimately related to the complexity with which the premise is handled.

Cleverness is not enough. None of us need to read any more stories that are merely clever. A less sophisticated writer than Disch would have created a clever and inconsequential story from the central idea of "Descending": a man gets on an escalator that never ends. From this idea, Disch builds a story that can be seen as an allegory, as a study of psychological breakdown, as a social critique. It does not scream a meaning at us, but it is rich with careful details that suggest as much as they say. Samuel Delany, in his introduction to Fundamental Disch, points out how well lists are used as a method of characterization, and this is, indeed, true, but the virtues of the story don't simply rest on that technique, because the situation of "Descending" enhances the characterization as well, and the choice of complications all reveal more about the character's personality. The lists are not only for characterization; as Schoffstall points out, they support the themes as well. Many elements of the story similarly serve multiple purposes -- they keep the action moving, they reveal aspects of character, they lend texture to ideas and implications, they evoke mystery from concrete imagery. "Descending" is a little bit more than 4,000 words long, but it is vastly more fulfilling than many stories of 10,000 words, and that is entirely because the premise is elaborated so carefully.

After first reading "Descending", I thought immediately of Kafka's "Metamorphosis", not because I think Disch's story is the equal of it, but rather because Kafka's is a story I have long considered a perfect example of a tale that explores its premise fully. "Descending" is perfect in its own, more modest, way. It is consistently surprising and yet rewards rereading.

Quote for the Day

"Before I worked here, I used to sometimes wonder to myself, 'Why doesn't Matt update his blog more often?'"

--Meghan McCarron, in the midst of an averagely busy day at the school where we work

26 September 2006


20 September 2006

A Conversation with Rodger Turner

Rodger Turner is the editor of SF Site, one of the most prominent online sources for reviews and information about the world of science fiction and fantasy. In the past, SF Site has been nominated for a Hugo and a World Fantasy Award, and is this year once again nominated for a World Fantasy Award.

I've been writing off and on for SF Site for a few years now, and it has been a great pleasure to work with Rodger and the rest of the SF Site staff. For a while now, I've wanted to know more about the site, its origins and operations, and so I asked Rodger if he would be willing to talk about it all, and he was.

How did SF Site begin? What were you hoping for the site?

In 1996, John O'Neill put together a proposal for a science fiction and fantasy (both in print and media formats) web site that he presented to me and others. All of us met and kicked around a number of ideas on how the proposal could be brought to fruition. We worked on a number of choices and, after some analysis, discovered that book reviews were our most popular pages. We did a redesign of the site to focus on reviews and to use an issue format. It became the format we still use today. You can see that first issue of that format for June 1997 at http://www.sfsite.com/home11.htm. After a few years, John decided to publish Black Gate and moved away from participating in the site.

How many other people work on the site?

Wayne MacLaurin is the site engineer, tweaking the server and handling its software, Neil Walsh manages the books and organizes the post and I do the web site and answer the email. We have a breakfast meeting every Saturday where we kick around the active issues.

We have a varying number of contributors. A quick count of my email folders says there are 32 active and 65 inactive contributors. But I see emails from our inactive contributors every so often so those counts change every week. We keep everyone on our distribution email list unless they ask to be removed or their email address bounces.

How do you find writers for the site?

They come from everywhere. Sometimes it is an unsolicited email. Or it might be a recommendation from one of our contributors. I've asked people I know to send something. I've been stopped at conventions asking if they could send something. Folks I've met through doing other sites have wanted to become a part of the site. I could name five other ways and a new one will pop up tomorrow. We ask them all essentially the same thing: send us 2-3 samples, read our review guidelines and, if the conditions are agreeable, we'll read them, discuss the samples and let you know.

What were your goals for the site when you began, and how have those goals changed over the years?

When I asked Neil and Wayne about this question of yours, we agreed that they haven't changed much in the last nine years. It is to promote science fiction and fantasy; to increase its popularity and to help publishers to sell more books. One churlish wag said to us one day that we should change the goals to get free books and to sell the site for a lot of money. We thought this had some merit but it would be awkward to reword it in a positive fashion, so we thanked them and said we'd pass.

If a goal is to help publishers sell more books, does that affect how writers review for you?

Nope. We have guidelines for reviews which every contributor reads. We ask for balance in tone and if someone doesn't want to do a review, for whatever reason, we suggest they toss the book into a corner and move on to another book. Experience has taught us that there are many more books published each month that we can review. In general, about all we ask is that the review isn't rude and contain anything that might get us sued. To date, I've only had to refuse two reviews (one for being rude and the other for libelous content) and ask that a handful of others to change their slant (which they did after I pointed out why I thought it was in the review's best interest). I figure that's not a bad ratio for over 3,500 reviews(books, movies and other media) we've posted since mid-1997.

Neil, Wayne and I have always preferred to post positive reviews. I imagine that there are always others happy to wallow in scathing attacks. The point is to find books that people are going to enjoy; the hidden gems, so to speak. If people aren't going to read the book because of a negative review, we are better off highlighting what we think is a good book and just ignore the bad ones. Life is too short for bad books.

What are some of the areas of SF Site that casual readers might not have discovered yet?

When I read this question, I was stumped for awhile. The site is designed to have no web page more than two links away from the front page or the site index. It was designed to be flat rather than deep. I had to navigate around to see if this was the case (and see how to answer this question). I found a few (and they'll be fixed soon).

One area they might not know is the series of pages done where we list the winners of awards and links to our reviews for the British Fantasy Awards, British SF Awards, World Fantasy Awards, Hugo Awards, Philip K. Dick Award, Arthur C. Clarke Award, Aurora Awards and, of course, SF Site's own Best Read of the Year.

Another is the series of topical lists, some of which include links to our reviews. They include the Night Visions Anthologies published by Dark Harvest and then Subterranean Press, Golden Gryphon Press, PS Publishing, 10 Odd SF Classics, Orion Fantasy Masterworks, Orion SF Masterworks, Ace SF Specials, Fedogan & Bremer Publishing, Sidecar Preservation Society, Carcosa Press and Mark V. Ziesing Books.

A third is the series of opinion pieces we have posted such as the Close to My Heart series (books that change your life), Michael M Jones's Schrodinger's Bookshelf (reviews of short fiction and young adult/children's fiction), Rick Klaw's Geeks With Books (essays on working in a SF bookstore), Georges T. Dodds's British Children Have More Fun (YA titles from the past), Scott Danielson's Vox: SF For Your Ears and Matthew Peckham's Sequential Art.

There is much more and http://www.sfsite.com/map3.htm will take you there.

Are there any particular accomplishments with the site that stick out in your mind as high points so far?

After talking about this with Wayne and Neil, we thought a couple of recent events rated a mention. A teacher told us that all of the school's computers have SF Site set to be one of the default bookmarks. A librarian for another city told us the same thing for all of their computers and went on to ask if they could use our lists for their printed promotion. Periodically someone stops us to thank us for recommending a really fantastic book. It is events like these that give us the impetus to continue doing the site.

Does your own interest in science fiction go back to childhood?

Yes, it does. It was one of those defining moment's in a person's life, like the death of JFK or the cancellation of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer. I was 10 years old, in grade 7, and I had just read one of Homer's books for school book report. I thought maybe other books on that shelf would be as good as that of Homer. I picked up Robert A. Heinlein's Red Planet and I was gobsmacked (a British term that perfectly describes my feelings during the reading of that book). I was hooked.

What were books and/or stories that particularly captured your imagination?

I looked for any other Heinlein title and then any other science fiction I could find. I tried Arthur C. Clarke (too dry -- I've read maybe 5 Clarke titles since), Isaac Asimov (liked the Foundation stuff but the rest didn't give me a buzz), John Brunner (cool ideas but he must have been a strange guy), Philip K. Dick (couldn't get enough and his ideas on what it means to be human still haunt me today), Marion Zimmer Bradley (loved the early Darkover but soon left a bitter taste in my mouth -- whaddya want? I was a teenage boy) and Harlan Ellison (is there a better living writer? Nope.) Most of this reading was courtesy of Ace Books and their Doubles/Singles series.

I also found the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series. Its editor, Lin Carter, swept me up into places science fiction never took me. The worlds of Clark Ashton Smith, William Hope Hodgson, Lord Dunsany, James Branch Cabell and Evangeline Walton gobsmacked me once again. In Canada, we didn't get the pirated Tolkien titles but the series did change my life. Mind you, I was just one of many who were changed.

I went through high school and university riding a crest of science fiction and fantasy. I didn't read anything else but for those books required for my English courses.

Has Heinlein's work held up for you since you first read it?

Some of it has. I read the revised/unedited version of Red Planet when Del Rey published it some years ago. They also did a number of his other titles which I dipped into to see how they compare. About the only positive thing I could say about that venture was that they should have sent his original editor a portion of the royalty cheques for the terrific job done on them. Later, I reread the earlier editions to flush the brackish memories. I was dancing like a bunny upon finding that they were as good as I remembered.

Do you ever go back to things you haven't read since those early years to see how you'd react now from a different perspective?

Often. I read a lot of books. My usual pattern is to give a book 50 pages or so. If it doesn't make me want to continue reading instead doing one of all the other distractions life has to offer, I set it aside (or toss them in a corner, if I never want to see it again) with the intention of coming back to them if I see something that piques my interest. If I find I'm going through too many unfinished books in a row, I panic and begin to question whether I've lost my love of SF and fantasy. That's the time I go back to a title that was magic for me the previous time around. If that book doesn't do it for me, then I know it is me, not the books, and that I need a vacation from reading SF. Then I go to my small pile of hard-boiled mystery novels and read a few of them. As yet, this routine hasn't failed.

I have a three level rating system: zero-not worth reading, one-worth reading once and two-worth reading at least twice. When I retired from my government job in 1999, I vowed to read all of the unreread 2's in my library. In retrospect, that was a stupid thing to do and I haven't completed the reading as yet. But I did read many books I hadn't looked at in a number of years. Most remained as 2's.

Read any good books recently?

Today, I'm reading Tim Powers's Three Days to Never. Yesterday, I read No Dominion by Charlie Huston (it'll be out later this year and is even better than Already Dead). Recent books that'll be 2's for me include Jeff Ford's The Girl in the Glass, Jon Courtenay Grimwood's 9Tail Fox, Justina Robson's Keeping It Real, anything thus far by Charles Stross (particularly The Merchant Princes series), Charles de Lint's Widdershins or his book The Blue Girl and the new Stephen King book titled Lisey's Story (out later this year and unlike most everything he has written).

Is it true that all Canadians are wonderful, friendly, intelligent people?

No, it isn't. We have our share of goofs, fools and knuckleheads. We just don't give them as much attention as they covet. Like many countries, we have many events that cause us to be ashamed, wince with embarrassment and generally wish we could forget. We just try to learn from our past and hope that we aren't doomed to repeat it.

19 September 2006

"Let's have light blue fog"

Trolleys passed Simeonov's window, once upon a time clanging their bells and swinging the hanging loops that resembled stirrups -- Simeonov kept thinking that the horses were hidden up in the ceiling, like portraits of trolley ancestors taken up to the attic; but the bells grew still, and now all he heard was the rattle, clickety-clack and squeals on the turns, and at last the red-sided cars with wooden benches died, and the new cars were rounded, noiseless, hissing at stops, and you could sit, plopping down on the soft seat that gasped and gave up the ghost beneath you, and ride off into the blue yonder to the last stop, beckoning with its name: Okkervil River. But Simeonov had never gone there. It was the end of the world and there was nothing there for him, but that wasn't it, really: without seeing or knowing that distant, almost non-Leningrad river, he could imagine it in any way he chose: a murky greenish flow, for instance, with a slow green sun murkily floating in it, silvery willows softly hanging down from the gentle bank, red brick two-story houses with tile roofs, humped wooden bridges -- a quiet world in a sleepy stupor, but actually it was probably filled with warehouses, fences, and some stinking factory spitting out mother-of-pearl toxic gases, a dump smoldering smelly smoke, or something else hopeless, provincial, and trite. No, no reason to be disillusioned by going to Okkervil River, it was better to mentally plant long-haired willows on its banks, set up steep-roofed houses, release slow-moving residents, perhaps in German caps, striped stockings, with long porcelain pipes in their mouths....even better to pave the Okkervil's embankment, fill the river with gray water, sketch in bridges with towers and chains, smooth out the granite parapets with a curved template, line the embankment with tall gray houses with cast iron grates on the windows -- with a fish-scale motif on top of the gates and nasturtiums peeking from the balconies -- and settle young Vera Vasilevna there and let her walk, pulling on a long glove, along the paving stones, placing her feet close together, stepping daintily with her black snub-toed slippers with apple-round heels, in a small round hat with a veil, through the still drizzle of a St. Petersburg morning; and in that case, make the fog light blue.

Let's have light blue fog. The fog in place, Vera Vasilevna walks, her round heels clicking, across the entire paved section held in Simeonov's imagination, here's the edge of the scenery, the director's run out of means, he is powerless and weary, he releases the actors, crosses out the balconies with nasturtiums, gives those who like it the grating with fish-scale motif, flicks the granite parapets into the water, stuffs the towered bridges into his pockets -- the pockets bulge, the chains droop as if from grandfather's watch, and only the Okkervil River flows on, narrowing and widening feverishly, unable to select a permanent image for itself.

--Tatyana Tolstaya
"Okkervil River"
in On the Golden Porch
translated by Antonina W. Bouis

15 September 2006

The Exquisite by Laird Hunt

For a few days now, I've been wondering how to write about Laird Hunt's new novel, The Exquisite. It's a marvelous book in many ways, and I enjoyed reading it, but I did not read it carefully -- I consumed it in chunks of spare time, which were sometimes fleeting, and so my reading happened at times when I was hurried or tired, sometimes when I should have been doing other things, sometimes when I was distracted. The situation of the reader can affect how a book is read profoundly, and most of the time when I write about what I've read I try to stay aware of my own situation and how that situation affected my response to the text. Sometimes, as in this case, the situation was as central to what I got from the book as anything the words themselves offered.

First off, then, I should say that The Exquisite is a book that held my attention at a time when many other things were vying for it. Because my attention could never be solely on the book, much of what the words said perplexed me -- not much actually baffled me, but the patterns of plot and character, the cause and effects of events and actions, the relationships of words and deeds, wriggled around without ever quite cohering. I don't think this is a bad thing; it did not make the experience of reading The Exquisite a painful or even unfulfilling one. I have a high tolerance for oddity and ambiguity, after all. I'm just saying I might have missed some points. (And I'm okay with that. Getting the point is, I believe, overrated. But that could just be a defensive mechanism on my part to cover my own misreadings, misprisions, and mystified moments...)

The Exquisite tells two stories. In one of them, the narrator, Henry, is a man saved from being down-and-out by a man named Aris Kindt, who hires him to join a band of merrymaking freelance murderers, except they don't actually murder people, they just go through the motions and give their "victims" the experience of being murdered. In the other story, told in alternating chapters, Henry is a man recuperating in a hospital after an accident, and he meets there another patient, named Aris Kindt, who helps him procure and sell drugs from the hospital storerooms. Both Aris Kindts refer to their "namesake" and their "namesake's namesake", the latter of which is the corpse of a murderer being dissected in Rembrandt's "The Anatomy Lesson". Characters with similar names inhabit both stories. Names are important here, though it's not entirely clear (at least to me) why. Identity gets dissected, but we are left to put the pieces back together for ourselves.

The story takes place in New York City, more or less now, though the hardboiled tone of the narration sometimes makes it feel like an imagined New York in the 1940s, a New York that exists only in memories of black and white movies. The city is as important a character as any of the people in the tale, and some of the best passages in the book give vivid glimpses of life there. The setting and language of its evocation are inseparable, the sounds and rhythms of the sentences providing as much architecture as the landscape they create:
New York is swell. It is swell on a cold wet night and it is swell on a cold clear dawn. It is swell with the cars coming fast toward you and it is swell down by the subway tracks, where the people come to gather and watch each other and wait. It is swell with the attractive denizens and with those who are not, including those, like you who might once have been. It is swell with the shop lights and it is swell with its skyscrapers and acres of rubble and brilliant glass-strewn streets with everyone loving everything and moving through the haze of airborne particles saying fuck you. It is swell with its parks and harsh, windswept open spaces, with its beautiful giant bridges, with its great river and grim estuary, its cardboard villages, its scaffolding, its doves in the morning, its sparrows and pigeons and hawks and wild parrots basking in the sun. Its layers of sonic and visual complexity are swell. Swell too is the little girl screeching with delight on the carousel at Bryant Park, while the cars go by, bits of garbage flick through the air, the wind irritates the trees, chairs are scraped again and again over gravel, the ground rumbles distantly as the trains plow the dark tunnels, grackles fight, small unseen electric explosions, wrecking balls, gobs of spittle smacking the pavement, someone claps, someone taps the Gertrude Stein statue on the shoulder, someone stumbles on an abandoned bright pink beauty-company supply case. Astoria and Fort Greene and Hell's Kitchen and Spanish Harlem and Washington Heights and Cobble Hill are swell. Swell, as we have already seen, are the museums, movies, bathhouses, and restaurants frequented by petty hoods.
When I first encountered that passage, I thought, "Swell?!" But rereading it, I warmed to that empty, archaic adjective, a word that is just out of place enough to draw attention to itself, and meaningless enough to be anything and everything, a sound waiting for substance, lending its peculiar void to all that is around it, encompassing so much -- indeed, swelling.

The Exquisite is a book built from books -- it is always (endearingly) artificial, pulling in items from many pages past, especially W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn, a very different book, but one that finds so much of its topography reconfigured here, revisited, re-viewed, like Shakespeare performed by Groucho Marx and Lauren Bacall. (Even Kelly Link makes it in: "...the 'jinx' thing had slipped my mind. It came back to me though when the two "I got it" guys burst into conversation in the booth behind me about some book one of them was reading called Stranger Things Happen.") I'm sure I missed some references, but it doesn't really matter, I don't think -- they're there as texture, as visitors lingering along in the text, whispering to remind us that words built this world.

The two main stories converge and diverge without explaining each other. They are echoes of echoes, their original sources lost, or at least distant, and so the echoes go on inhabiting the same air. This is a book so full of plots that everything that seems important also seems tangential. It's no surprise that Aris Kindt is a connoisseur of herrings; within the mysteries of The Exquisite, plenty of the herrings are red, but they're part of an entire rainbow -- or, to switch metaphors, an ocean of tributaries filled with plotting fish. No resolution is for sure, and every version of the truth tells some sort of story, with each story being as valid as the other -- the point is not the resolution, but the pleasure of the telling, just as the joy of murder stories is not in how they end up, but in the planning, preparation, and execution that lead to the end. Cut out all possibility of an end, and most of the pleasures still remain, while new pleasures reveal themselves.

Perhaps it was best that I read The Exquisite the way I did, in fits and starts, in stolen moments, sometimes with close attention and sometimes so exhausted the pages I read extended their imagery into what, moments later, I dreamed. I released myself from feeling any need to assess the book, and instead merely experienced it (merely!), and it melded itself so well into my days that the reading of it has become an inextricable part of my memory of my life in the past few weeks, so that it was for me not only an artifact or a story, but a companion made of words.

11 September 2006

Today's Song

I needed something different to listen to, and so picked up the Johnny Depp/Gore Verbinski/Hal Wilmer-produced anthology Rogue's Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, and Chanteys, which is often odd in interesting ways. (I just wish it included Tom Waits, since his latest albums have been put out by the same label, Anti. But since his 3-CD Orphans is coming out in November, I ain't complainin' too mightily...)

One of the least odd and most affecting songs on the album is Richard Thompson's version of "Mingulay Boat Song" (MP3), which I have found myself listening to repeatedly today.

07 September 2006

Michael Palmer Wins Wallace Stevens

Write this. We have burned all their villages

Write this. We have burned all the villages and the people in them

Write this. We have adopted their customs and their manner of dress

Write this. A word may be shaped like a bed, a basket of tears or an X

--Michael Palmer, from "Sun"
As proof that major awards can still offer an occasional pleasant surprise, the Wallace Stevens Award, with a $100,000 prize, is this year going to Michael Palmer.

I met Palmer at Bread Loaf in the summer of 2000. I'd never heard of him before that. Early in the conference, we ended up sitting beside each other during a reading, and I had no idea he was one of the faculty members, because he seemed like a relatively ordinary human being, certainly not a poet, maybe somebody from town who had come to visit. We got to talking, and he asked what I was there for, and I said fiction, and he said, "That's the stuff that goes all the way over to the right margin, isn't it?" I chuckled nervously, not sure if he was serious, and said, "That's about as good a definition as I've come up with."

I don't remember if I learned he was a poet then, but I vividly remember going to his 9am lecture later. It blew the top of my head off. At 9am, there he was giving a challenging and erudite examination of poetics that made reference to (among others) Paul Celan and Velimir Khlebnikov, two writers I, in my provincialism, thought were my own personal discoveries, basically unknown to the world at large (and to the world at large, I suppose they are, but still...) Many other people seemed to be bored and wanting something more amusing and accessible at that time of day, but the lecture so energized me that I could barely think about anything else for the rest of the day.

I've since read a lot of Palmer's work, particularly The Lion Bridge: Selected Poems 1972-1995, which I return to frequently when I need a jolt of imagery, the zing of a perfect phrase -- Palmer is an enigmatic writer, yes, but the effect of his words on me is similar to that I got when I was a kid and discovered REM, bewildered by the apparent lack of sense, bewitched by the effect of the rhythms and words on the part of my brain that responded to something other than sense. (Which is not to say Palmer's writing is senseless; after spending so much time with it, I've found plenty of ideas and implications within it, but that was not what I could access first, and so was not what I responded to.)

Here are some links for anyone who wants to know more:

06 September 2006

Delany in The Minnesota Review

The website of The Minnesota Review has posted a new interview with Samuel R. Delany by Josh Lukin, who has also written a new essay about Delany.

Minnesota Review is a journal that is quite hospitable to critical theory, so the topics and vocabulary are frequently abstruse, but it's a valuable conversation. I was interested to see that Delany engages with a few ideas from the Theory's Empire symposium that The Valve conducted last year, which leads him to one of the more concise and lucid summations I can remember reading of the difficulties of communication:
The words strike your ear, where, within your brain, the discourses that you inhabit guide them to the meanings you have associated with them. These meanings are thus called up in your brain. But my meanings never go directly into your brain and yours never go directly into mine. Communication, on that level, is simply an illusion, fostered by cultural and discursive similarities and congruences. Within the discourses you inhabit, the meanings have already struck up a desire to produce another meaning. Thus dialogue continues.
What Delany is talking about in the section from which I've pulled a small part are ideas he's been exploring for quite some time, and through continued refinement and reiteration he has developed what is, in comparison to most other writers on such topics, a notably clear way of expressing those ideas -- clear, but the ideas remain complex and difficult, which means no matter how careful the language, they remain challenging to comprehend. (Or, well, maybe it's just that I've read so much about these topics at this point that the language seems clear to me, despite how much I don't comprehend...)

I also particularly liked this passage from the last paragraph:
What I tend to find myself doing more and more is insisting on what we don't know--and that we would do ourselves a favor by ceasing to carry on as if we did. As a novelist, I move here and there and explore, looking largely for the fascinating pattern--for something that I might call form, or beauty, or sometimes even creation. As a non-fiction writer, I try to write about what I see and have seen here against what I see and have seen there—and what people have said about what is there, what is here, and to compare that to what I saw when I looked.
(Coincidentally, in the same issue is an interview with Donald Pease, who is head of the masters program I'm in at Dartmouth, and is the first reader for my thesis on Delany.)

05 September 2006

A Prolegomenon to the Reading of Some Books Labeled YA

Sometime in the coming months, I hope to read four new novels that are, as far as I can tell, being marketed as Young Adult Literature. This is purely for my own pleasure and edification, because YA is a realm a lot of people have been praising as full of interesting interests, and at the very least I always need some good books to recommend to students who say they don't like reading. (My recommendation of War and Peace has not been well received.)

There has been a lot of talk about YA and genres and ghettos and such at The Elegant Variation, and this made me remember my pledge to read some YA this year. Unfortunately, I've pledged to read all sorts of things this year, and have also just returned to work full-time after a year's sabbatical, and have a masters thesis that needs some major progress to happen to it soon, soon, soon, and--

But, I am persistent and try to do what I say I'll do, and I really do want to read these books, because I think it will be fun, and fun is something we all need. I am not trying to make some sort of judgment on the whole YA phenomenon or anything like that, but rather to read four books that are being aimed at mostly the same audience, and see what sticks out to me. My greatest hope is that I'll love all four and want to exhort the world to read them immediately.

When reading, much of how the reader feels at the end depends on the expectations the reader had at the beginning. For instance, the last time I read some YA novels I did so because somebody had told me that they were stylistically and structurally complex, they were subversive, they were x, y, z. In some ways they were, but mostly they felt thin to me, a bit tricksy, a bit too desperate to be the kind of thing a kid might find cool. I was put off. I was annoyed. I was the wrong audience for these books, and I'd gone in with expectations they could not possibly meet. I do not have the kind of brain that can say whether a kid will love a book or not; I am often surprised to find my students love books I thought they'd find boring and hate ones I thought they'd have to pry their eyes away from. In some ways, this makes me the worst possible person to read YA novels, because there's something within my way of gaining pleasure and insight from fiction that is vastly different from the way teenagers gain pleasure and insight from fiction. (And yes, I know there's something in my way of gaining pleasure and insight from fiction that is vastly different from the way everybody gains pleasure and insight from fiction, you don't have to remind me of that...) This time, then, I'm going in with no expectations except to see what's up with these books, and to have as open a mind as possible, the same kind of mind that allowed me to read the first four Harry Potter books with a superficial pleasure -- my expectations were so low as to be almost nonexistent, and though I remember next to nothing of the books, reading them was an enjoyable way to kill some time.

I have not mentioned the books. They are: The Black Tattoo by Sam Enthoven, A Drowned Maiden's Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz, Flora Segunda by Ysabeau Wilce, and The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by M.T. Anderson. I mention them now because I'm thinking of it and to give a good start to anybody who wants to read them as well so so as to be able to argue with whatever I happen to say about them. I expect to begin in the next few weeks, and to finish, I hope, by the end of the year. We shall see...

Meanwhile, Jenny Davidson points to a review by Frank Kermode wherein he says:
In fact [Andrew] Motion sets himself a virtually impossible task: an adult writer is setting down what he imagines to be the thoughts and observations of a teenage boy who is, in turn, remembering and reflecting on his earlier life. This complicates a problem that would exist even if there were only two, not three, Motions involved in the business. It is impossible to imagine what an account of childhood 'without benefit of hindsight' might be like, unless it resembled Joyce’s attempts in the opening pages of Portrait of the Artist.

The imagined speaker in this book reflects soberly that whereas the childhood of others ends slowly, in fits and starts, his has ended 'suddenly. In a day.' Not, surely, a child’s observation; and neither is this: 'I don’t want to talk about it in grown-up language I haven’t learned yet.' Of course that is what he does and has to do, with some effect of falsity. The voice is inevitably the voice of the artist: someone 'made a face' or 'lit another cigarette and dotted the ash into the blue glass ashtray' or clasped and unclasped her hands. When a lamp 'buzzes', or the boy kicks aside a mistletoe berry or a yew berry (feared as poisonous), we must assume the adult writer’s imagination is pretending to be the teenager’s memory. Perhaps there are moments when the man has remembered his childish language, betrayed by his fondness for such words as 'wriggle', 'slither' and 'squish'. But mostly I think we understand that the grown man is doing the talking and thinking, sometimes with slightly uncomfortable results.
I am drawn to both agree and disagree with this objection in general -- agree, because I, too, have had the experience of reading books where the attempt to capture a child's impressions and ideas seemed strained and even embarrassing; disagree, because most successful fiction creates a voice that is entirely artificial, and yet, through its artifice, persuades us -- misdirects us -- to swear it's real and convincing and verily verisimilitudinous. The problem, if there is a problem, would not be with Motion's failure to create a true representation of how he would have written the book were he a child, anymore but rather it is a failure to find an idiom that distracts the reader from the actual writer's adulthood. Joyce's opening pages of Portrait are extraordinary not because a child would have written them that way, but because they accomplish all the adult writer seemed to be aiming for (in terms of how those pages relate to the book as a whole; the structural accomplishment of an adult) while also creating strangely lovely sentences that make us, the adult readers, immediately recognize the voice as that of a young child. As Stephen grows older in the following pages, the diction and observations follow, but there is still a tremendous artifice to the whole endeavor, and when I read the first fifty pages or so of Portrait, I am always aware of the author behind the words, because the presentation is breathtaking. Truly great art is art that draws attention to itself because it is a virtuoso performance, and we revel in the performer's ability to accomplish what we ordinary people cannot.

(I'm not sure this has any connection with the first part of this post, but perhaps I will figure out a connection later, once the reading has begun.)