28 September 2007

A Few Quick Notes

It's likely there won't be much in the way of updates around here for at least a few days, but I have a few fragments of information and marginal bits of thought to share before I go...
  • John Joseph Adams wrote a nice piece for SciFi Wire about Jeff and Ann VanderMeer's guest editing of Best American Fantasy.

  • Speaking of Best Americans, all the various ones from various publishers now seem to be out in stores. I stayed up much too late last night, utterly engrossed in The Best American Essays 2007, guest edited by David Foster Wallace. I always find a few essays in that book to be fascinating or impressive, but none of the other volumes I've read have so completely hooked me -- indeed, in all the other volumes I've encountered at least one essay that cured insomnia. That's not the case with this edition. I was reading the first essay, Jo Ann Beard's "Werner", last night at a pizza place across from Cooper Union, and I not only nearly missed the Jonathan Lethem event because the piece was so gripping, but it was a struggle not to burst into tears at the end of it. Breathtaking. As are so many of the other essays.

  • I am doing everything I can not to run out and buy a copy of Denis Johnson's new novel, Tree of Smoke. The good people at McNally Robinson can attest to my immense powers of self-control. They watched as I struggled with the Mr. Hyde that kept pushing me toward it, toward it, toward it... People emailing to say how much they're enjoying it and how brilliant it is do not help the cause. I actually petted a friend's copy of it when we went out to see the play Have You Seen Steve Steven?. Even though it's a heavy book, she is addicted to it and carries it around with her wherever she goes. Actually, I think she does this to torture people like me, who lack the time to tackle a gazillion-page tome of brilliance right now. What else would explain her putting the book on the table at the bar we went to? In the middle of the table? Why why why do my friends insist on tormenting me?!?

  • How was the play? Entertaining, generally well acted and directed, but the script (an amalgamation of Albee and Ionesco) falls apart in the last third, as if the writer didn't really know what to do with her set-up and threw her hands in the air and said, "Well, whatever!" I liked what was going on in the end more than what was going on in the beginning -- a bit too much of a familiar "aren't people in the mid-west funny?" and "isn't middle-class suburban life suffocating?" attempt at satire, despite some marvelous lines -- so it would have been nice if the script actually created a context for the absurdity of words divorced from meanings to be more, well, meaningful (the play becomes a game of ping-pong with free-floating signifiers). The end is amusing enough in its oddity, but there's no weight to it. It's strange, but not estranging. Nonetheless, watching the play was not at all a boring or tedious experience, and 13P is a really great venture, one I hope to continue to follow.

  • Finally, as Woody Allen once said, "In summing up, I wish I had some kind of affirmative message to leave you with. I don't. Would you take two negative messages?"

27 September 2007

A Report from the Lethem-PKD Event

The Jonathan Lethem/Philip K. Dick event at Cooper Union was a real delight. It began with Max Rudin, publisher of the Library of America, announcing that a second volume of PKD's novels will be released from the LOA in August 2008, also edited by Lethem. He rattled off the titles of the five novels quite quickly, but -- assuming I heard him correctly and nobody involved with the book changes their mind between now and then -- the included novels will be:
Lethem then read some excerpts from his introduction to the selected stories collection from a few years ago (which, Lethem informed us, would not be released in paperback because the paperback rights to the stories are owned by somebody else) and the whole of his own story "Phil in the Marketplace". Lethem then answered a number of questions from the audience. I took some notes, but missed as much as I got, and all of it is at best paraphrase. Nonetheless, here 'tis:

To a question about why, when other writers also write about paranoia and such, Dick is so special, Lethem replied that when he speaks of Dick, he often also finds himself (or other people) bringing up Pynchon, DeLillo, and Vonnegut, among others, but that for him the difference is a matter of distance and emotional reserve -- Dick's difference is defined by his emotional investment in the situations. His empathy is his only compass. He possessed an obvious satirical impulse (or worldview, even), but he doesn't make fun of his characters' situations. He seems to grapple with the world and seek for solace.

Lethem had mentioned early on that one of the things he found most interesting and challenging about putting together the first LOA volume was working on the timeline, where 40 years of disappointments and struggles were not buffered by a biographical narrative, but were, instead, tied to particular dates. An audience member asked him to elaborate on this, and on the timeline's effect on his story "Phil in the Marketplace". He got a bit off topic and talked for a while about Hampton Fancher, who wrote the first version of the script of Blade Runner, mostly as a way to explain that it seemed Dick was deeply uncomfortable with his growing fame, and feared the encroaching outer world as much as he desired it. Who knows, for instance, how uncomfortable he might be with the kind of canonization he's recently received? Yet he would also, hopefully, be hugely gratified. "Phil in the Marketplace" is about his exile temperament -- he wrote from the margin and drew energy from what he saw as the fate of the pulp writer. Lethem said he wants, and has wanted since he was young, what every PKD fan vociferously wants -- legitimacy for Dick. And yet he noted that he and many fans also have another side, one that no matter what sort of accolades or canonization Dick receives, still feels slighted, denied, defiant. But, Lethem noted, Dick is now in the Library of America, and nobody can remove him.

The next question referred to I Am Alive and You Are Dead, and the questioner asked if Lethem thought Dick was ever really in control. Lethem said he admired that book, but thought it played to the Romantic view of Dick as a crazy artist, and that we have to remember that he had other sides to his life and personality, and that he also really enjoyed wearing masks (playing a role) and being a raconteur. He loved to create theories, test them, and test the credibility (and gullibility) of his audience with them. He didn't stand on one patch of ground. It's as hopeless, Lethem said, to defend him against the word "crazy" as it is to defend Faulkner against the word "alcoholic", but we also have to recognize how generally functional Dick was, and how much more to him there is than just the crazy stuff.

Another questioner asked if he liked Dick's Transmigration of Timothy Archer, and Lethem said he did, and he thought it was, as Dick's last completed novel, a very encouraging place for his career to end up, because it's a sensitively-written novel told from a woman's point of view -- and if you're going to have trouble with any element of Dick's writing, Lethem said, you're going to have trouble with the female characters in many of his books, because they are often treated as [I think this is the term he used, but had some trouble hearing it:] dark lords. Dick wrote 40+ novels, Lethem said, and on any day at least 8-10 of them seem to him to be among PKD's best, and Transmigration is up there.

He then made a point I think is insightful -- that you have to read at least 3 Dick novels, preferably in different modes, to really understand his accomplishment. (I should have raised my hand and asked him to elaborate on this, but he's probably done so in an essay or interview somewhere.)

Finally, someone asked what Lethem thought of the movies made from Dick's writings. He said two or three are worthwhile. Blade Runner he said he hated when he first saw it, because of its huge divergences from the original novel, but that later, and particularly with the director's cut, he decided it was one of the great American movies, something any PKD fan could be grateful for the way a Hemingway fan, for instance, could be grateful that something by Hemingway inspired a movie as great as To Have and Have Not [the obvious difference being, though, that that great movie -- with a script that William Faulkner, among others, worked on -- was based on one of Hemingway's lesser novels, whereas Blade Runner was based on one of Dick's best]. Lethem said he liked A Scanner Darkly, though it certainly shows some of the limits of adaptation. Of the other films, he said there are some scenes that he likes very much, and wished he could put together a movie just from some of those. He said we can be grateful that most of the movies based on Dick's writings have been made from the short stories, leaving the major works for future Richard Linklaters. Or so we can hope.

25 September 2007

JL on PKD at CU

Jonathan Lethem is going to be at Cooper Union on Thursday night, and according to Galleycat he will be revealing the contents of the second Library of America collection of Philip K. Dick's novels. I'm going to try to be there, and will report as much as I can back here. For those of you in the NYC area, here's the info (from the Cooper Union website):
Jonathan Lethem: Philip K. Dick: Four Novels of the 1960s
Lecture and book signing
Thursday, September 27, 6:30 pm
The Great Hall
7 East 7th Street at Third Avenue

Acclaimed writer Jonathan Lethem is the editor of a selection of novels written by science fiction writer Philip K. Dick from the 1960s. Dick left behind more than 160 short stories and novels when he died in 1982. Many of his tales have become successful films, such as Blade Runner and Minority Report. Lethem bundled four of Dick's novels into one book to give a new generation the opportunity to discover Dick's futuristic visions.

Jonathan Lethem is the author of seven novels, including Gun, with Occasional Music; The Fortress of Solitude and You Don't Love Me Yet. Motherless Brooklyn, his fifth, won the National Book Critics Circle Award.

24 September 2007

New Strange Horizons

The latest Strange Horizons has a marvelous essay by Abigail Nussbaum on Anna Kavan's novels Ice and Guilty:
Ice's plot doesn't so much progress as spiral inwards, tightening in on the moment in which the encroaching ice leaves only the narrator and the woman alone in the world. Even this point of convergence, however, isn't the novel's purpose -- indeed, the story ends ambivalently, holding out the possibility of yet more iterations of the narrator's story to come. Ice is an exercise in sustaining an emotional tone -- an oppressive, terrifying, senseless one. It succeeds at this task admirably, making for a reading experience that is not so much pleasant as irresistible, and an emotional impact that proves very difficult to shake off.
(For another view of Ice, see L. Timmel Duchamp's essay from Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet.)

Also in this issue of Strange Horizons is my latest column. This one is about Guy Davenport's story "Belinda's World Tour" (available in A Table of Green Fields and The Death of Picasso). The column is a sort of companion piece to my previous one, continuing to look at the representation of historical figures in fiction.

21 September 2007

Random Thoughts on Things Recently Read and Soon to Be Read

Scott Esposito has posted a list of books he's hoping to get to in the next few months, and I thought, "Wouldn't that be fun!" -- of course, there are many books I'm hoping to get to, but I have no idea how much I'll be able to read, especially as November and December are particularly busy times at my new job, and I'll also be in the midst of helping shepherd the next Best American Fantasy into some sort of shape. (I'm currently cultivating a couple new guest reviewers for this site to pick up some of my slack. I feed them whenever possible and sometimes even let them have light. It will be fun to watch as they blossom...)

In putting together a list of books I'm hoping to read, or finish reading, soon, I realized there are a handful of books I've read and not written about. I'll start this rather random and rambling (and staggeringly opinionated!) post, then, with a few of those.

I don't often finish reading books I don't like. Undoubtedly, this tendency has caused me to miss books I would, eventually, have found fascinating, but I can think of very few books that I have disliked during the first 100 pages that have, later, proved rewarding. Resentment ruins the experience of reading, and once I have built up resentment of a book for wasting my time, I'm unlikely to be able to notice its virtues as I continue reading.

Nonetheless, I somehow managed to read three books recently that I quite vehemently disliked from pretty early on, and yet I finished them. The books were The Exception by Christian Jungersen, Forgive Me by Amanda Eyre Ward, and The Book of Revelation by Rupert Thomson. I disliked them all for similar reasons, and I'm trying to pin down my feelings so as to write an essay, because what bothered me was each book's use of violence as a way of manipulating the reader's sympathies or judgment. The first two books seem well-intentioned but tasteless and crude, the Thomson more interesting in the structural and narrative gambles it makes, though ultimately I wasn't able to discover any meaningful purpose to those gambles, so the whole thing seemed merely absurd, and if the sentences weren't so plain the novel might have caused me to giggle throughout. (I loved Thomson's Divided Kingdom, and just wrote a review [probably for Rain Taxi] of his new novel, Death of a Murderer, which I had mixed but not terribly negative feelings about.)

After The Exception and Forgive Me, I knew I wanted to try to write something about why those two books seemed to me to reduce atrocities to kitsch, and so I began to seek out novels that might offer more thoughtful approaches to the presentation of terrible violence in fiction. This led me to Gillian Slovo's novel Red Dust, which I'd just watched the movie of. While the movie is better than the oddly similar but less engaging In My Country (both are about the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission), it turned out to be a real lessening of the book, because the book's strength is its even-handed presentation of very different characters' points of view. While this is no great innovation for a novel, the differences between the movie of Red Dust and the book show why, for this material, it's an excellent choice. The floating viewpoints of the novel are lost in the movie, which puts most of its emphasis on Hilary Swank's character while still trying to maintain the novel's moral complexities. Reading the book shows how significantly the movie fails at that.

Red Dust
makes for a good comparison with The Exception, where multiple points of view are a gimmick that never brings us beyond the fact that Jungersen's novel sets us up to equate obnoxious office workers with the victims of genocide. The Exception obviously and monotonously yells the theme of "we are all capable of atrocities"; Red Dust lets characters and events suggest complexities and ambiguities, but the presentation is generally without the schematic moralizing or melodrama that fills every chapter of The Exception. Red Dust is superior to Forgive Me, too, on a number of levels -- the prose and dialogue don't gleam with superficial polish or sag with ponderous attention to the obvious, the characters are less stereotypical, and the difficulties of South Africa's post-apartheid years are not an excuse for the protagonist to discover great truths about herself or decide that being an independent, adventurous woman is less appealing than being a dull mom in Nantucket.

I'm now reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun, a tremendously engrossing novel about which I'm sure I will soon have a lot more to say. [Update 11/6/07: Alas, I found that after an engrossing start, Half of a Yellow Sun didn't really hold up for me, and though I got halfway through, I didn't end up finishing it.]

Somewhere in the last month or so I read Tobias Wolff's Old School, which disappointed me, especially because I have liked many of Wolff's previous books. But Old School hardly left any impression on me -- I really can't remember much of anything from it.

I haven't finished many books I've been intending to finish for some time, including Kelley Eskridge's Dangerous Space and the collection of recent Caine Prize winners, Jungfrau and Other Short Stories. I seldom read short story collections straight through; instead I dip in, come up for air, dip again ... later... I've just started dipping into two collections of Ryunosake Akutagawa's stories, Rashomon and Other Stories and Mandarins. Much of this is Jeffrey Ford's fault, because ever since I read Jeff's essay on "Hell Screen", I've wanted to read it. (And he's right; it's worth it. The story is in the Penguin collection.) It's also Dustin Kurtz's fault, since he recommended Mandarins at the McNally Robinson site, and when I saw a copy sitting on the Archipelago Books table at the Brooklyn Book Festival, I couldn't resist it. The collections complement each other well in their selections (there's very little overlap), and both are quite beautiful paperbacks. The stories are extraordinary -- the title story of Mandarins reminds me of (and is as good as) Chekhov's best early stories.

Finally, some books I hope soon to read or finish reading: Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner, Design Flaws of the Human Condition by Paul Schmidtberger, The Changeling by Kate Horsley, Auralia's Colors by Jeffrey Overstreet, From Midnight to Dawn: The Last Tracks of the Underground Railroad by Jacqueline L. Tobin and Hettie Jones, Foreigners by Caryl Phillips, The Assassin's Song by M.G. Vassanji ... and many more...

20 September 2007

Literate Nobodies

Christian Bök offers his poetry students a somewhat different view than they are likely to get from many other teachers:
I often remind my students that, despite their belief that they have important knowledge to communicate to the world at large through their poetry, their status as poets already suggests that they have failed to make any momentous discovery that might have otherwise contributed to the history of knowledge; otherwise, the students might have exploited this insight in far more lucrative vocations, like the sciences or even business. I remind my students that they are probably taking my class in poetry because "math is hard"--and since they have no other worthy skills, they have chosen to accept their demotion to a lowly caste of literate nobodies. I get a few nervous giggles from the students after these waggish tirades--but then I underline my argument by saying that, if students really do believe that they are communicating, heretofore undiscovered, revelations to the public, then the proper genre for transmitting such a discovery is definitely not a poem, but a press conference....

16 September 2007

Brooklyn Book Festival

Tempest and I spent the day at the Brooklyn Book Festival, mostly just wandering around harrassing various vendors. I finally got to meet Hannah Tinti, editor of One Story, in person, and she told me about the Save the Short Story project, and even got a picture of me reading Calvin Baker's "Dominion", a very fine story indeed.

We also got to meet Tom Roberge of A Public Space, another person I'd exchanged plenty of emails with, but had not yet encountered in person. I convinced Tempest to subscribe, which was one of my better accomplishments of the day. There are only a few magazines I really wouldn't want to be without for even one issue, and A Public Space is one such magazine.

Gavin Grant and Jed Berry manfully manned the Small Beer Press table. Tempest and I had discussed the fact that there haven't been any good, physical literary fights recently -- plenty of internet flamewars and such, but nobody actually punching somebody out -- and so we tried to convince Gavin that he should start such a fight, perhaps at the upcoming World Fantasy Convention, but he didn't like the idea, citing certain impracticalities and long-range effects. (Why do people have to be sensible and ruin our grand plans for entertainment?)

I tried to find Richard Nash of Soft Skull Press to catch up with him, since we haven't had a chance to chat for a while, but he was off watching some hockey game or something involving steel. I thought for a while that this was just a ploy to get me to go away and stop scaring customers away from the Soft Skull table, but Ed got the same info.

(Except I never saw Ed. Sure, there were 10,000 people at the festival, but still. If anybody can stand out amidst 10,000 people, it's Ed. I think one of us doesn't exist. Actually, during the entire day the only litblogger I encountered was Levi Asher. I think they were all hiding from me. Or wearing disguises. After all, it took me a moment to recognize Levi...)

Tempest and I had lunch at a wonderful place serving wraps and smoothies, a bunch of blocks away from the festival, down some roads. (Brooklyn remains a mystery to me.) We had many fun moments during lunch, but one particularly fun one for me was watching somebody reading today's Times, utterly engrossed by Maria Headley's amusing and touching essay about being a stepmonster. I restrained myself from going up to the poor, unwitting soul and screaming like a little girl, "Hey, I know her! She's great! Omygawd you're reading her essay!!!" It took a lot of self-denial and inner strength to avoid doing this, but I somehow persevered.

The only panel/reading we went to was a reading by Uzodinma Iweala, Doreen Baingana, and Mohammed Naseehu Ali, all of whom were excellent. I knew Iweala's and Baingana's work, but Ali was new to me, and I will now most certainly seek out his collection The Prophet of Zongo Street. Doreen Baingana, who I first became acquainted with in Kenya last year, read part of a story from her excellent collection Tropical Fish, and Iweala read a story from the latest Paris Review. (And I guess here is the place where I have to admit I don't read The Paris Review much anymore because it has become so thin. A few stories, an interview or two, a handful of poems, some pictures. The design has gotten better, but the contents have been put on such a diet the magazine just doesn't hold much interest for me anymore. Alas.)

There were other panels that looked fascinating, but there were long lines to get tickets to see them, and getting tickets would have required planning and organization on my part. So we only saw the one. And a good one it was.

After the reading, I found Tom Burke, who is one of the organizers of the Summer Literary Seminars program through which I visited Kenya last year. Tom kindly introduced me to some of the people behind one of my favorite websites, Words Without Borders, and pointed out a new lit mag to me, the St. Petersburg Review, which is published from my home state of New Hampshire and features a bunch of excellent writers, including George Saunders, Gina Ochsner, Padgett Powell, Josip Novakovich, Aimee Bender, Jeffrey Renard Allen, Mark Halperin, Timothy Liu, and, appropriately, many Russians whose names are at the moment unfamiliar to me. It also includes a special section of poetry by women from the Gulags.

By the end of the day, I was too tired to make the trek over to the Sunday Salon, so that's going to have to wait for another Sunday. It's good to have things to look forward to.

13 September 2007

VanderBooks Massive Blowout Sale!

The much-anticipated and even now legendary VanderMeer Book Sale has begun. Get yours while supplies last! It's an amazing collection of all sorts of things, and if I don't get more specific than that, it's just because after looking at a few pages of it, I stopped, because if I kept looking, I would have kept desiring, and if I kept desiring, I might have begun spending, and if I began spending, I wouldn't stop spending, and I really really don't need to be spending right now. So please go buy everything there before my will power gives out and I succumb.

Brooklyn Book Fest and Sunday Salon

Sunday is the Brooklyn Book Festival, and I'm going to try to be there. If you are there and see me (wandering around lost and confused, most likely), please say hi.

If I've still got some energy and a few wits about me by evening, I'll be going to the Sunday Salon at 7pm at the Stain Bar, if I can find it (I tend to get bewildered in Brooklyn).

10 September 2007

The New Moon's Arms by Nalo Hopkinson

a review by Craig Laurance Gidney

Like a patchwork quilt, Nalo Hopkinson’s new novel The New Moon's Arms positively seethes with patterns and threads that clash, but come together regardless. It’s a madcap comic novel about aging, the wounds of slavery, and the transformative power of love set on an imaginary archipelago in the Caribbean.

The action centers around Calamity Lambkin, a curmudgeonly 50-something woman on the verge of menopause. Her first person narration is raunchy and rollicking without resorting to the cheap sassiness that Hollywood assigns black women. You won’t find Calamity in a Tyler Perry movie anytime soon. Born Chastity, she has renamed herself Calamity after a life of hardship, involving a teenaged pregnancy, single motherhood and the disappearance of her own mother. During her father’s funeral, she starts experiencing intense hot flashes that coincide with her finding objects that have been lost long ago—mostly from her childhood. A monogrammed pin, a toy truck, and in one instance, her father’s entire cashew grove appears out of thin air. During a particularly violent storm, Calamity finds the strangest thing of all: a lost child who has washed up on shore, who babbles an incomprehensible language. She decides to act as a foster parent to the lost boy, which causes further complications in her life.

Calamity is a profoundly flawed character, but one whose heart is in the right place. She is deeply suspicious, has a mean streak as wide as the Sargasso, and makes alienating mistakes at the drop of a hat. The little lost boy brings out her vulnerability, even as she drives potential friends, lovers and her own child away. Her hard-headedness, though, is what drives her quest to find the lost boy’s parents.

Folklore is woven into the structure of the novel that informs the narrative. An ancestor of Calamity’s, referred to the Dada Hair Woman, has several interludes set during the harrowing Middle Passage. Like Calamity, she is a ‘finder’ whose power is triggered by her menstrual cycles. This section is told in a mythic tone different from the rest of the novel, and readers will find echoes of Toni Morrison’s Beloved; like Morrison, Hopkinson is able to make scenes of unflinching brutality ultimately cathartic. Another folkloric strain concerns ‘the devil girl of the sea, that mirrors the action of the main story:
‘Keep your part of the bargain now,’ said the devil girl. ‘Pull me out of this hole.’

So Granny did that. The devil girl was slippery. Her skin was a deep blue, like the water in Blue Pit, the bottomless lagoon. And she was heavy for so! Granny managed, though. But before Granny could stop her, the devil girl shimmied up onto Granny’s shoulders, wrapped her legs around Granny’s neck, and tangled her long blue nails in Granny’s hair. ‘Carry me to where you living, Granny; beg you do,’ said the devil girl.

And she squeezed her legs tighter around Granny’s neck.
Hopkinson’s archipelago of Cayaba is rich with history and contemporary touches. It’s a culturally diverse setting where a salt-mining plant competes with family salt farms; where old beliefs compete with new ones (Calamity’s daughter is a new age hippy, much to her mother’s chagrin). ‘Jumbies’ and internet connectivity exist side by side. The struggles of the indigenous postcolonial population against corporate-driven political maneuvering is another theme explored here.

Hopkinson threatens to move into didactic territory when she adds a queer subplot. While admirable, it distracts from the main narrative thrust. Calamity’s got pregnant with her daughter by her gay best friend, and one of her current love interests is bisexual. Calamity reacts with anger at these perceived betrayals and gets soundly slapped down by people with more enlightened attitudes. These scenes come across stiffly and have an educational feel.

The New Moon’s Arms is mostly a fun novel. There were moments when I was reading it on DC’s Metro that I laughed aloud, and elicited strange looks from fellow passengers. It’s not every day you can call a postcolonial novel a ‘feel-good’ book.

07 September 2007

Tachyon's Superluminal Velocity

We are lucky to live in a world with some very fine small and independent presses. Despite all of the woeful news about how few people read books these days, and how difficult life can be for publishers and writers, and how difficult it is to get books noticed -- despite all this, individual and determined publishers continue to issue extraordinary books.

Recently, I've been continually impressed by Tachyon Publications, and I realized I haven't really said much here about Tachyon -- in many ways, I've just taken them for granted. Taking them for granted is a terrible thing to do, though, especially since they have a particular commitment to short story collections and anthologies, the sort of books that bigger publishers often consider anathema, but that devoted readers (like all of us, of course!) feast upon. (Mmmm, good paper, tasty book...)

I was looking around for some information on Jim Kelly and John Kessel's upcoming book, Re-wired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology, and I saw an offer from way back in May on the Tachyon blog for free shipping in the U.S. on all pre-orders (the book will be published in October). I wondered if the deal was still good, so I contacted Jill Roberts, and she said, indeed, it is -- for all forthcoming books, not just Re-wired. Just email Jill. (It may not apply to Shatterday and The Dog Said Bow-Wow, since those were just released a few days ago.)

Much of what is upcoming is pretty spectacular -- take a look at the just-announced spring list: the VanderMeers' steampunk anthology, a new novel by Thomas M. Disch, Year's Best Fantasy 8, a new Nancy Kress thriller, and a reprint of Tim Powers's The Stress of Her Regard.

I'm very curious about Tachyon's past and future, and so am preparing an interview with Jill, who is managing editor, and with Jacob Weisman, who is publisher and editor-in-chief. Cheryl Morgan published an interview with Jacob almost exactly three years ago, and it will be interesting to see what has changed and what hasn't in that time.

05 September 2007

The Moral Argument of Talking Dogs

The Rake on James Wood's criticism of "hysterical realism":
His puffed-up preferences are not moral imperatives.

I happen to disagree with Wood, but in invoking moral objections he's already denied me equal textual footing for a rebuttal. Certain metatextual questions remain in play: We can talk, for example, about whether or not Robert Lowell should have incorporated his ex-wife's letters into his work, but I fear I'm not willing or able to sustain a moral argument for or against Pynchon's decision to include a talking dog and a mechanical duck in Mason & Dixon rather than more conventional, rounded human characters. To engage a moral argument about such things is to be led down the primrose path by Wood, where we will engage in narrowing the novel instead of celebrating its manifold possibilities.

04 September 2007

The Price of Books

Levi Asher is on a quest to find out why books are so expensive. He's just posted a fascinating series of short interviews with publisher Richard Nash, novelist and blogger Mark Sarvas, and agent Scott Hoffman.

As Mark points out, in comparison to going out to see a movie, buying a book is not a horrendously expensive activity. And in comparison to going to the theatre, it's downright cheap.

But, as Colleen can attest, I had a strong reaction when I grabbed the new Best American Poetry, a wee 192 pages, and saw the price was $16. It went right back onto the table from which I picked it up. I haven't bought a BAP since Lyn Heijinian's 2004 volume, which was also $16 (for 288 pages), but I ordered that one online and for a sharp discount, which is probably what I'll do for the new edition (the editor, Heather McHugh, is a poet I like quite a bit -- I buy BAPs for the guest editors, not the contents, really).

Later, I asked myself what price I would have been willing to pay for the book, and thought that probably $13.95 was about the threshold between, "Wow, a book!" and "Wow, that price!" If the new BAP had been priced at that, I would have left the store with it.

In some ways, this makes little sense -- $13.95 is only $2.05 less than the actual price, and $2.05, particularly here in the region of NYC, ain't a lot of money. But there is a psychological barrier -- $16 feels like a rip-off for a 192-page paperback, even though I don't make it a practice of buying books based on weight.

Interestingly, the list price for The Best American Poetry 1999 is $17.95, which in 2007 dollars would be about $22.44, so the price of the books has gone down over the years. Really, though, the lesson here is patience: that 1999 edition is available used for $0.01 (plus shipping) from Amazon.

Fall Quarterly Conversation

The latest edition of The Quarterly Conversation is now live, and contains multitudes. I have a review of Rick Moody's new collection of novellas, Right Livelihoods, in which I try to make the case for Moody as a good science fiction writer and a bad satirist. Garth Risk Hallberg responds to James Woods's attacks on Don DeLillo. Scott Esposito writes about two memoirs of life in prison. Ann Fernald extols the wonders of Jean Thompson's Throw Like a Girl. Brien Michael looks at two books about gender, identity, and transgenderism. Richard Crary writes about Gabriel Josipovici and Goldberg: Variations. A.J. White explores Natsume Soseki's Kokoro. And there's more.

03 September 2007

Description and Its Discontents

As we got closer to the publication date of Best American Fantasy, I grew anxious to read reviews of the book. My anxieties were relieved early on, when Publisher's Weekly gave us a starred review and NPR put the book on their summer reading list. Visions of bestsellerdom danced in my head. (Well, not quite. I'm not entirely delusional.)

But we knew the book was pretty weird, and not likely to appeal to certain types of readers. I was curious how readers for whom it was not a perfect experience reacted. Soon enough, we heard from a couple of folks who didn't really like the book on the whole, and couldn't connect to, seemingly, any of the stories. These responses were in private, because we asked anybody who even hinted that they had reservations about the book to tell us why -- we were curious to understand how people could not share in our enthusiasm for these stories, and hoped we might learn something from the responses. Not liking a few stories was completely understandable (that's the nature of an anthology), but not liking most of them was, perhaps naively, almost inconceivable to us. Sure, "The Chinese Boy" and "The End of Narrative" are difficult, dense pieces that are not going to win mass audiences, but surely no-one would fail to be wowed by "Bit Forgive". And even if someone thought we were tending toward the "literary" and ... whatever ... at least they'd have the longest story in the book, "First Kisses from Beyond the Grave" (a high school zombie romp), as relief. We spent a lot of time working on the order of the stories, and paid particular attention to the first few, wanting to demonstrate the variety available in the book and also wanting to reassure readers who didn't connect to one story that, with the next, they'd get something quite different.

Thankfully, there have been very few people so far who have disliked the whole thing. Some gaps can't be bridged, and readers who want nothing but "transparent prose" and plot-driven stories are going to find very little in this book to please them. Plenty of other books mine that material; it's not what we're after. We've got stories with strong plots and stories with perfectly ordinary sentences constructed in the most familiar ways, but on the whole, no, that's not the sort of story that most excites us.

What I hadn't considered before, but seems obvious to me now, is how much anthologies are sitting ducks for reviewers. Lazy reviewers love them, because they read a few stories and generalize from there. Philosophically-minded reviewers love them, because an anthology is a kind of argument, and the reviewer can then work through the book story by story and see how the argument holds up. (Interfictions has, I think, suffered from this.) I've written such reviews myself, sometimes ponderously so -- o, this form of review so easily becomes ponderous! Occasionally, such a tendency produces a review rich with insights rather than bloviation, but it's rare -- one fine example I'd offer is Alan DeNiro's review of Paraspheres for Rain Taxi.

All of which brings me to Gwyneth Jones's thoughtful, somewhat mixed review of BAF at Strange Horizons. First off, I should say I'm old fashioned and think it's unseemly for writers to respond to reviews, unless they need to correct gross factual errors. The people involved with the work under review slaved away and did the best they could, the reviewer has said his or her thing, de gustibus and all that. But with a venture like BAF, it's interesting to look at how such a book is received in general, and important, I think, to clarify some intentions and goals, since this is the beginning of a series.

What I like about this review is that it is so clearly personal -- this is one person's thoughts on reading through the book. (And she clearly read the whole book.) Some stories worked for her, some didn't. We get a clear idea of the sorts of things Gwyneth Jones likes, and readers can calibrate their own responses accordingly, while also getting a few ideas to think about. There are some assumptions I quite vehemently disagree with (particularly about "The Next Corpse Collector"), and though I may be oversensitive, there seems to be a certain snarkiness about U.S. writers in some of the remarks. Though I know more about the writers than is listed in their bios, I think the accusations of provincialism are absurd for a few reasons, but it is an undeniable fact that most of the writers are U.S. citizens and all of the stories come from publishers based in the U.S. That's how it happened this time. Next time, it'll probably be the same, for the purely practical reason that that's what we currently have the most access to, but in the future ... who knows.

Those are quibbles, though, and on the whole, the review pleased me quite a bit, because it's honest and specific and also says lots of great things about many of the stories. But there's one sentence I can't let go without responding to, because it succinctly and efficiently gets at the heart of what makes some of these stories difficult and even unreadable for some people who encounter them.

Jones writes: "Some pieces, I felt, relied too heavily on description, as if unfamiliar detail is all that the fantastic requires." Obviously, we disagree -- if we thought any story had lots of extraneous description or was just trying to be weird for the sake of being weird, we wouldn't have included it. (That's the de gustibus part of all this.) This response, and some others, have made me wonder what we are seeing in certain of these stories that other readers are not?

It may be that the last clause of Jones's statement is directed at the editors rather than the writers, most of whom probably weren't thinking to themselves, "Hey, I'm going to write a fantasy story today!" The classification is entirely our fault. I will hold back from commenting any more on that, because I want the editors to have the freedom to define "fantasy" however they desire.

But if we take the criticism to be one of technique, then I think it makes an interesting point, and one worth debating. In general, popular/commercial fiction avoids long passages of descriptive exposition, and certain types of literary fiction revel in it. It's difficult to generalize about this sort of thing, because the terms are inexact and exceptions abound, but there are differences of attention and pleasure worth noting, and too often, I think, those differences get judged rather than analyzed.

A few assumptions are hidden within the criticism. I'm going to ignore one, though it's a big one: Are the stories being criticized actually filled with extraneous details and descriptions, or is this a perception caused by something else? And what, exactly, does "description" mean and how is it separate from other elements? It would take an essay and a lot of examples to explore those questions, and I'd be fascinated to read it if someone else wrote it.

The assumption that interests me here is that description has a narrow function. This is the assumption that causes readers to grow impatient with paragraphs and pages they decide are "too descriptive". I am sometimes one of those readers. But, primarily through teaching high school students (who seem to have a genetic disposition to hate anything they can label "description"), I've learned that my knee-jerk reaction against descriptive writing is often shortsighted.

The best fiction, I believe, is fiction in which the sentences do many things at once. Such fiction is rereadable: it reveals more and more with each encounter. If, like me, you tend to make hasty judgments about descriptive passages, I think it's worth trying to break that habit with these stories. What I think you'll find if you suppress your superficial reactions to some of the stories is that their sentences are doing quite a few things at once, particularly the sentences in the descriptive passages.

An analysis of any strong passage of descriptive writing would point out a variety of things. First, there are the rhythmic features of the sentences, the sounds they produce together. Then there are the meanings the words seek to convey: they tell you something happened, they show a character's response to something, they describe an object or a scene. This is where we sometimes stop -- we assume a description, for instance, is just trying to create an image in our mind. As a reader, if I can't figure out what else a passage is doing, and I haven't been particularly entranced by the sound, I move on if a descriptive passage lasts for more than a few sentences, because I've got a good imagination and prefer to have sketches rather than oil paintings cluttering up the attic of my mind.

But description can do more, and, having read all of the stories in the book at least three times, and many of them considerably more than that, I think the tales in BAF all reward careful consideration of what their sentences are up to. In some cases, the descriptions are creating juxtapositions and patterns, building structures of image in your mind, an alternate logic in dialogue with the logic of the story's surface. They create worlds not just by illustrating a universe different from the rational one we take for granted, but by moving beyond denotation to utilize all the tools available -- not just evoking, but summoning and embodying a reality other than the one we inhabit (this, I would argue, is the wonder and pleasure and genius of "The Chinese Boy").

Most of the stories don't go quite that far, but nonetheless their best passages all do more than simply describe something: they allow what is being described to suggest so much more than the fact of itself, and to interact with the other elements of the story in multiple, and often subtle, ways. "The Stolen Father" shows its narrator grappling with loss, grasping at the words to represent all he believes and doesn't believe, all he seeks and aches for, repeating and revising until he can turn his life into a more comforting tale. "First Kisses from Beyond the Grave" is a kind of jazz riff on adolescence, a marvelously balanced confabulation of absurdities and unbridled ridiculousness with the yearnings of youth, like a tall tale told to fend off the destructive furies of our passing days. The details in "The Next Corpse Collector" are essential to understanding the narrator and the situation of the story -- nothing in the story would really make sense of it were a minimalist charting of this-then-that, and the vivid, painful, beautiful texture of the tale is essential not merely for its own sake, but for the patterns that reveal the character's lives and motivations. The details are also necessary for the sake of the story's pacing, which helps reveal its world -- the pace of a place is essential to its character.

If we go into a story and look at a passage with the attitude that it is simply a description, then we blind ourselves to what else may be going on there, and in reading and rereading these stories, I believe that each one of them deserves and rewards a more open mind than that.

I am nitpicking a review I am grateful for, mostly because I feel so warmly toward these stories and the book as a whole that I want readers to approach them with the best possible perspective, because the goal of the book is not to cause frustration and angst and repulsion, but rather to share the pleasure we had when we discovered these tales.