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.


  1. "What I like about this review is that it is so clearly personal -- this is one person's thoughts on reading through the book."
    Matt: When exactly isn't any review this?

    Jeff Ford

  2. I just meant it's nice to read a review that doesn't try to hide its inevitable personal nature behind a pose of objectivity. I think it's on my mind because I read some of my own old reviews recently, and the ones that most bothered me were the ones where I tried to pretend I was doing anything other than exploring my own reaction to whatever it was I was writing about. (I particularly had this tendency when I was writing theatre reviews for NYU's student newspaper in the '90s. I was compensating for my own inexperience by trying to sound oracular or something. Just dreadful.) Or maybe I was thinking about this because I'd been reading some pieces about James Wood and his move to the New Yorker, and though I like Wood as a writer in general, his tendency to make his own prejudices into universal statements grates on me.

  3. I really struggle to review anthologies because I know that what I like isn't necessarily what someone else will like - and if I skip something they would love then they might skip the whole book. I feel a lot of pressure to review them as comprehensively as possible but Jessa likes 1,000 words or less on reviews and that is so damn hard with anthologies. My review of "Interfictions" got slashed a bit to make that word count and I really feel it suffers a lot because of that. It just does not read as complete (or even coherent) to me now.

    I never really look at overall themes though - I know they might be there, but I try to judge on the stories themselves and if the complete book is worthwhile and a good read. It's hard for me though, and I don't review nearly as many anthologies as a I could because of this.

    Colleen aka Chasing Ray

  4. The word "extraneous" reminds me of the discussion of "self-indulgent" from a while back. What separates intrinsic description from extraneous?

  5. Jeff: We, who write them, all know that reviews generally are personal, and like Matt I prefer them that way. But I have had plenty of people attack my reviews on the grounds that they are personal rather than objective. I think this comes from a view that a review should tell the reader whether a book is "good" or not, whereas actually all it can tell you is whether or not the reviewer liked the book.

  6. "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."

    I may be confused here, but isn't the title of this anthology Best American Fantasy?

  7. Yes, the title is Best American Fantasy, but we're very aware that the word "America" does not equal "United States" and really is used because "United Statesian" is ugly. We've sought out a lot of Canadian publications, and eventually would love to have more access to Mexican, Central American, and South American fiction. That's more in my long-range plans, though, than anything I have the ability to make happen immediately, so for the moment we're sticking to U.S. and Canadian writers and publishers. And though all of our writers in the first volume are, to some extent or another, based in the U.S., they are not all solely based in the U.S.

  8. Then you can name the next anthology "Best North American Fantasy" or "Best Western Hemisphere Fantasy", if you get so broad a pool of picks.

  9. Though I'm sure you, Matt, of all people, are aware, Delany had some pithy things to say about the use of description in his own work, and how he was constantly struggling to insert enough detail without losing the train of the story. He is unusually adept at it, I'd say.

    I think it's a shame but nearly everyone, even attentive readers, is guilty of skimming descriptive passages now and then. Certainly there are rythmic and - your main point - structural rewards in any prose passage, maybe particularly in bits of description. The problem is that, though readers pick up much of this stuff passively, such rewards require a different, maybe broader, mode of reading - one we more often associate with poetry. There are writers like DeNiro whose prose demands to be read at all levels or not at all, but too often when we read works which are a bit more conventional it's easy to read them just for semantic content. We see cues in the text that tell us, "Okay, this is just dialogue, you know how it works: read for meaning." Of course that's especially true for texts labelled "fantasy" which is a genre effectively defined by content, with the corollary assumption that the mode of writing can be ignored. (I would argue that genres like fantasy and science fiction are really defined by historical context more than content, but that's a different discussion.) As an editor of the stories you've had the luxury of close reading, and can speak to the texts at all levels. Ideally a rewiever would have read as closely, but we know that that is just unrealistic.

    The kids at A Public Space passed me a copy, by the way. I bumped it to the top of my stack.