30 April 2007

Juniper Fest

This weekend, Meghan McCarron and I went to the Juniper Festival in Amherst, Massachusetts to see Alan DeNiro read, and to hang out with him, Gavin Grant and Kelly Link of Small Beer Press, and Holly and Theo Black. Alan read from "Home of The" from Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead, and the audience was amused and enthusiastic, as was only proper.

There was even cotton candy. More readings need cotton candy.

The Juniper Festival is not something I was aware of before we visited, but it's a great event, and next year if I'm in the area, I hope to attend more of the readings and panel discussions, because Amherst is fun town and the mix of writers and readers is eclectic. (And Amherst Books is a marvelous bookstore!)

Lucy Corin particularly grabbed my attention with her reading from Everyday Psychokillers: A History for Girls, a novel I now hope to read very soon. (Yes, I know I say that about a lot of books. And I mean it. I'm full of hope. Especially after being in Amherst, the hometown of Emily Dickinson, who knew that hope is a thing with feathers. Which means it flies around and squawks a lot.)

Among the poets, Timothy Donnelly was, I thought, a standout. He read with a nervous energy that gave his poems a vibrancy some others lacked. (Or so it seemed to me. But I'm slowly coming to realize that I don't like most poetry readings. Or fiction readings, for that matter. I'm too attached to the page, to the shape of words as visual objects -- a strange fact, since I have almost no visual imagination. I tend to lose track of stories when I hear them read, and so fix on the author's voice or tone, their rhythm, their tics. I liked hearing "Home of The" because the story works well in Alan's speaking voice, and I liked both Lucy Corin and Timothy Donnelly because their reading styles were lively and seemed appropriate to what they read. I've often gone to readings by writers whose work I admire and have ended up deeply disappointed, even disillusioned, because how they read seemed to remove all the life and music and marvels from their words. Conversely, I've encountered writers whose work I don't really like very much on the page, but whose reading style is so engaging I would happily listen to them for hours -- I am as grateful to them as I am to great actors in plays whose scripts I don't care for, because a reading is a kind of performance, and in performance what matters most is what is present, not the architecture bringing the present into existence [that is for a different sort of consideration].)

Paul Fattaruso was at the festival, but I didn't get a chance to meet him, which was a shame, because I like his first novel, Travel in the Mouth of the Wolf, quite a bit.

Some of the most fun we had was not at the festival, though, but rather involved just sitting around, eating fine barbecued food prepared by Theo and Holly, talking about various and sundry things, searching in vain for a goth-pop song from the '80s Kelly was trying to identify, touring the magnificent Black homestead, and making a film about Alan DeNiro. Yes, a film. (Be grateful that I declined the role of the naked person running around in the background. That role has yet to be cast. For details, contact Gavin.)

And now for a quick couple of recommendations that have nothing to do with anything in particular: If you like literature in translation, don't miss the Reading the World festival. Also, if you like weird and whimsical wonders, be sure to check out Gionale Nuovo's post about Xul Solar before you end your internet peregrinations for the day.

27 April 2007

Sometimes in April

I've found hardly any reviews of Sometimes in April, a film about the Rwandan genocide written and directed by Raoul Peck and released by HBO in 2005, and it was purely by luck that I stumbled upon it through Netflix. There are aesthetic problems with the movie -- clunky dialogue, wooden acting, convoluted narrative -- that make it less satisfying than Hotel Rwanda, but it's still better than much of what fills the screens of the world, and it has a number of virtues that a good and fluent film like Hotel Rwanda lacks, as well as virtues not available through a documentary.

First, it's important to note that none of the flaws of Sometimes in April carry through the entire 140 minutes of the movie. Most of the major actors have at least a few moments of sensitive, subtle acting, and Idris Elba, Pamela Nomvete, Carole Karemera in particular all seemed to navigate between the moments of awkward writing and the re-enactment of horrific events with more grace than not, and sometimes with sublime poignancy. The most embarrassing scenes are ones involving bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. -- Debra Winger is simply awful as Prudence Bushnell , and the other actors are worse, like animatronic commediadell'arte caricatures.

Sometimes in April
tells the story of two Hutu brothers, one of whom, Augustin (Elba), is a soldier married to a Tutsi woman (Karemera); the other, Honoré (Oris Erhuero), is a radio commentator famous for his incendiary, anti-Tutsi remarks. The story moves back and forth between 2004, when Augustin is trying to move on with his life and Honoré is in prison, and 1994, when Augustin's family is destroyed by the genocidaires. Interwoven into this central narrative strand is the story of Martine (Nomvete), a teacher who lives through the atrocities and eventually becomes Augustin's companion, and scenes of Bushnell trying to convince somebody -- anybody! -- in Washington that the killings in Rwanda were worth doing something to stop.

One of the greatest virtues of Sometimes in April is that is manages to convey so much without being either more incoherent or more didactic than it is. Over and over again, this is a movie that portrays complex events and ideas through imagery and characters. Sometimes it stumbles, certainly, but the task Peck has set for himself, his actors, and his crew is one that is nearly impossible -- an honest and accurate portrayal of the Rwandan genocide through a fictional story for a general, and probably uninformed, audience. There are scenes of brutality and scenes of beauty, and Peck pays particular interest to characters' faces: their expressions, their dignity, their eyes. Hotel Rwanda is a more structurally satisfying film mostly because it doesn't try to do nearly as much as Sometimes in April; I don't mean that as criticism of the former so much as praise for the ambition and, indeed, accomplishment of the latter.

Peck is an admirable director and writer in that he seems determined to tell African stories from an African point of view. His Lumumba is a thoughtful portrait of Patrice Lumumba, the first (and ill-fated) prime minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Sometimes in April is a more epic movie, less focused on one person, and with much more material to synthesize.

Hotel Rwanda
is notable not the least for being a major feature that doesn't overly concern itself with white people, which makes it a rare sort of movie, because usually films -- the ones financed by Hollywood, certainly -- don't get off the ground unless they show some whites expressing their basic goodness or discovering their inner morality (usually accompanied by an at-least-quasi-magical negro or secular African saint).* Hotel Rwanda, though, was mostly filmed in South Africa, while Sometimes in April was actually filmed in Rwanda, and many of the actors and much of the crew were Rwandan.

Sometimes in April should -- and does -- stand on its own, but I compare it here to the better-known Hotel Rwanda, not because I think either movie owes anything to the other, but because the comparison seems to reveal strengths, weaknesses, and differences of both films. Sometimes in April is more explicitly critical of the U.S., and it makes no criticism of the Tutsis or Paul Kagame (who denounced Hotel Rwanda) -- thus, the political implications of the two movies are different, despite their shared subject matter and setting. Sometimes in April is, very much, a political film (though not only that); Hotel Rwanda seems to me to be more of a celebration of its protagonist and his triumph, an ultimately uplifting story in amidst one of the most horrific moments of the horror-filled 20th Century, and political only to the extent that no story about the Rwandan genocide can avoid being suffused with politics. Sometimes in April is not uplifting; it is infuriating, devastating, and immensely sad, even as its characters try to learn, in the end, how to move on with their lives. The difference is the difference between, for instance, Schindler's List and either The Pianist or Fateless (although I think Hotel Rwanda is better than Schindler's List [about which I agree with Zizek] and Sometimes in April doesn't have the same strong writing, acting, and filmmaking as The Pianist and Fateless).

All of which is just a very long and tangential way of saying: Sometimes in April, though not perfect, is a film very much worth seeing, and one that deserves a large audience.

*An exception: Catch a Fire, though somewhat disappointing in its execution, at least focused more on the complexities of its black protagonist than the moral education of its primary white character, played by Tim Robbins. But Catch a Fire seems to have been a mostly European production, and although it was distributed by Universal in the U.S., overall it appears to have been a financial failure, which is unfortunate -- not only because it's a whole lot better than most of the top grossers of 2006, but because its financial failure just gives movie executives an excuse to ignore films about Africans in Africa.

Delany: The Movie

Through a fortuitous bit of luck, I'm going to be in Manhattan very briefly next week, but with enough time to see The Polymath, or The Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman at the Tribeca Film Festival on Thursday night. I learned of the film's existence on the same day I was invited to a job interview in the city, and so I'm counting this as a good sign of some sort. The film is listed as a "must-see" by Time Out New York, and The New Yorker gave it a very nice capsule review.

26 April 2007

Back in the Saddle

First, thank you to everybody who sent kind wishes after my last post. We had a memorial service here at school, and are now moving forward.

In the past two weeks, I've traveled up and down the east coast looking for work, carrying a sign reading: Will Teach for Food. The process continues (and my anxiety grows), but I'm closer to having a couple of prospects now than I was a few weeks ago. It's very strange to think that three months from now I will be living and working somewhere entirely different, somewhere that I don't yet know, but it's also exciting.

I haven't quite known how to get back to writing here, because I've been so scattered psychologically and geographically recently that I have few coherent thoughts. But what's a blog for if not for incoherent thoughts, eh?

And what else is a blog for if not shameless self-promotion -- thus, my first incoherent thoughts are about new books that contain my occasional bits of fiction, such as The Flash, an anthology of very short stories edited by Peter Wild and published by Social Disease in the U.K. Proceeds from the book benefit Amnesty International. The Flash includes not only stories by immensely famous writers such as myself, but also stories by unknown writers such as Jonathan Lethem, Rick Moody, Aimee Bender, Jeff VanderMeer, Sara Gran, Clare Dudman, Jeffrey Ford, Paul Di Filippo, Shelley Jackson, Laird Hunt, Daniel Wallace, and other up-and-comers.

Arriving next week to a bookstore near you (I hope) is John Klima's anthology Logorrhea, which includes twenty-one stories based on words from the National Spelling Bee. My story, "The Last Elegy", takes up where the word elegiacal left off. I just got a copy of the book, and though I haven't had a chance to read any of the stories in full yet, I have read the first paragraphs of most of them, and I like every one of them better than my own, so I recommend the book enthusiastically.

Enough about me. Here's a book you should buy: Dark Reflections, the new novel by Samuel R. Delany. I haven't read it yet, but will very soon. It's not science fiction or fantasy, but rather the story of a black gay poet in New York City's Lower East Side over the past fifty years or so. Edmund White gave it a great blurb ("one of the most honest books I've ever read about the martyrdom of the writer in the contemporary world"), and Publisher's Weekly said, "Delany transforms poetry's status as the most ignored field of American letters into a devastating and beautifully written study of the loneliness and despair that so often accompany the life of the mind in America." I haven't looked forward to reading a book this much in a long time.

And over at the LitBlog Co-op, it's Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die Week. I really admired how carefully the book was written and imagined, but it's just one of those books that I couldn't develop any passion for, one of those books that I'm entirely the wrong reader for its particular sort of construction, so I don't really have anything to contribute to the discussion, but I definitely recommend people take a look and see if it's their kind of thing, because what it does, it does well.

I have piles -- PILES! -- of books waiting to be read and reviewed here, there, and everywhere. I won't get to even a quarter of the ones I want to, never mind the ones that have just sprouted in the corner of my apartment like kudzu or kipple. I'm hoping to get some new and old guest reviewers writing stuff here, picking up my slack, but until then I'll probably do a post or two about books that particularly seem to stand out from the pack amongst the many making my shelves bow and the floors groan, and I'll try a couple of give-aways, too. Soon, soon....

17 April 2007

Moments of Silence

Things will be quiet here for a week or so, and I'm not very good right now with answering emails, etc. We had a tragedy last night at the school where I work, and so most of my energy for the moment is going to my colleagues and students. We're getting through okay, but it's not easy, because we're a small, intimate community, and we lost a student suddenly and unpredictably, and there was nothing anybody could do.

My thoughts are also with the family and friends of Jamie Bishop and all the victims at Virginia Tech -- I don't know the Bishops, but have friends who do, and it makes the awful loss there even more immediate for me.

Words fail.

16 April 2007

LBC Sez, "Read Whilst Skinny Dipping!"

It's time again for another pick from the LitBlog Co-op, and this time it's Alan DeNiro's Skinny-Dipping in the Lake of the Dead! I kept quiet during deliberations, because Alan's a friend and I could easily be accused of favoritism, but I'm thrilled the book came out as the top pick. Even if I hated Alan, I'd still like the book. And I don't hate Alan. In fact, Alan and The Mumpsimus have a long history, as he was one of the first writers I ever interviewed here. Later, he participated in the speculative poetry symposium I put together for Strange Horizons. (Nowadays, I hear, he lives in a cardboard box in Montana, where he survives on fried boll weevils and wombat blood. Let no-one suggest that association with this weblog has deleterious effects!)

During Skinny-Dipping week at the LBC, we will be discussing the book as a whole, individual stories, and other topics, and I am frantically searching for the pictures of Alan in a bikini that I have stashed away somewhere...

BAF's Literary Lions

Galleycat reports that five writers have been nominated by the New York Public Library for the Young Lions Fiction Award, and I was thrilled to see that three of the writers are people whose work will be appearing in our inaugural volume of Best American Fantasy: Chris Adrian, Kevin Brockmeier, and Tony D'Souza. I'm still reading Chris Adrian's amazing novel The Children's Hospital (and likely will be for a while), I reviewed Kevin Brockmeier's The Brief History of the Dead for SF Site, and I just bought a copy of Tony D'Souza's Whiteman, which was edited by the great and glorious Tina Pohlman.

In my copious free time, I hope eventually to start chronicling the awards and accomplishments of all of our BAF contributors at the blog, but for now little blips of congratulations are going to have to suffice. So congratulations to Tony, Kevin, and Chris -- and may you all win!

Mr. Waggish on Mr. Bolaño

Just after writing my little love letter to Roberto Bolaño, I noticed that Mr. Waggish has read and thought about The Savage Detectives (and confesses he is less love-struck than I, which is, it seems to me, a healthy thing). I'd meant to link to Waggish's previous consideration of By Night in Chile, but in my haste forgot to, and so now I correct that here. (It was a particularly negligent oversight, because I think it was that post that first got me interested in seeking out Bolaño's work.)

14 April 2007

Bolaño, Mi Amor

I started reading Roberto Bolaño's work last year, beginning with his short story collection Last Evenings on Earth, and it was love at first sight. Actually, no. I think I had to read a couple of stories before I was entranced -- I remember reading the first story and wondering what all the fuss over Bolaño was about, but by the end of the second I was developing a crush, and by the end of the third I was head-over-heels. From there, it was on to Distant Star and By Night in Chile -- the last a bittersweet experience, because some bastard had written in the Dartmouth Library copy, defacing it with underlining and marginal notes, inserting their own dull presence between me and the words of mi novio. (I have since gotten a fresh copy of my own, but still, the pain lingers.) (I've not yet read Amulet, but soon, soon... ) (I've been reading the translations, though I've glanced at the Spanish-language originals. My Spanish is, unfortunately, at best functional -- enough to let me get the gist of most newspaper articles, but not much more than that. I keep practicing, though.)

A copy of the latest book of Bolaño's to appear in the U.S., The Savage Detectives, is, I hear, on its way to me, and I am preparing to put all the other books in my life aside so that I can spend some quality time with it and it alone. After the short assignations that are Bolaño's other books in English, The Savage Detectives will (I hope, I expect, I dream) allow a longer-term relationship.

What is the nature of this passion of mine? Any love is difficult to explain fully, to analyze or dissect, but I have some idea of what it is about Bolaño's writing that makes it so attractive to me. His diction (in Chris Andrews's translations, at least) is disarmingly colloquial, creating a poetic effect that heightens ordinary speech and expression without churning it into lyrical goo. This is, to be honest, my favorite sort of style, but one I am wary of, because most of the time it is used by writers who don't know what else to do. Bolaño's stories drift around, often as monologues -- and since I was once an aspiring playwright, I have a weakness for monologues. I am happiest when hearing characters talk. His characters talk, and they talk about each other talking, and their talk is the substance of their stories.

But this is not all that attracts me -- such writing might be enough to spark a crush, but it is not, on its own, enough to fuel a passion. I am also enraptured by Bolaño's mix of the odd and the ordinary, the easy movement he makes between the logic of modernity and the logic of dreams, the willingness he has to indulge in goofiness and absurdity, and the general refusal in all of his work (that I have read) to turn terror and evil into simple melodrama. And I adore his allusions -- no literary geek like me could fail to fall in love with all the names dropped through the pages like confetti from The Reader's Encyclopedia. No-one with a sweet tooth for metafiction could fail to be charmed by the twists and turns of Bolaño's fictive realities, their palimpsests and funhouse mirrors, their chuckles and winks.

I do not suffer passionate love for the critic James Wood, whose spleen sometimes bursts with ridiculous generalities about What Fiction Should Do And Be, but when he writes in praise of a writer (as Carrie just said, too) he's at his best, and able to isolate many of the elements that make a particular piece of writing work. Thus, I was pleased to see he likes Bolaño, whom he calls a "wonderfully strange Chilean imaginer, at once a grounded realist and a lyricist of the speculative" and so has named my love in exactly the words I would have used, had I been less love-struck and more concise. He quotes a sentence from By Night in Chile and then follows it with a marvelous array of insights -- the sentence is about a pigeon-killing falcon named Ta Gueule:

"Ta Gueule appeared again like a lightning bolt, or the abstract idea of a lightning bolt, and stooped on the huge flocks of starlings coming out of the west like swarms of flies, darkening the sky with their erratic fluttering, and after a few minutes the fluttering of the starlings was bloodied, scattered and bloodied, and afternoon on the outskirts of Avignon took on a deep red hue, like the color of sunsets seen from an airplane, or the color of dawns, when the passenger is woken gently by the engines whistling in his ears and lifts up the little blind and sees the horizon marked with a red line, like the planet's femoral artery, or the planet's aorta, gradually swelling, and I saw that swelling blood vessel in the sky over Avignon, the blood-stained flight of the starlings, Ta Guele splashing color like an Abstract Expressionist painter."

Much of the most successfully daring postwar fiction has been by writers committed to the long dramatic sentence (Bohumil Hrabal, Thomas Bernhard, W. G. Sebald, José Saramago). Bolaño is in their company: the quotation here is broken off of a phrase that takes about a page in the book. The musical control is impeccable, and one is struck by Bolaño's ability to nudge on his long, light, ethereal sentence -- impossibly, like someone punting a leaf -- image by image: the falcon, the red hue, the sunset, the dawn, the dawn seen from a plane, the femoral artery, the blood vessel, the abstract painter. It could so easily be too much, and somehow isn't, the flight of fancy anchored by precision and a just-suppressed comedy. (In Spain, amusingly, the falcons are too old or docile for killing, and the priests have none of the dangerous elegance of their French or Italian counterparts.) Likewise, this fantasia about falcons in every European city might have been thuddingly allegorical or irritatingly whimsical, and isn't. It is comically plausible, and concretely evoked; the surrealism lies in the systematic elaboration of the image. The Catholic Church is likened to a bird of prey, murderous and blood-red in its second capital, Avignon, and we are free to link this, without coercion, to the Chilean situation and the ethical somnolence of Father Urrutia.

Here Wood starts from one of the other things that inevitably makes my heart go pitter-pat, the wonder of long sentences, and continues on to show just what is so marvelous about this particular one. I'm also glad he writes about this because it brings out just how skilled Bolaño was, a fact that is sometimes easy to forget when we don't read with all the care we should, when we miss the complexity of his structures and think they're lackadaisical. That's where the art lies: in the indirection.

When it comes to literary loves, I like to share, and so here, for those of you who may not have fallen under Bolaño's particular spell yet (or who have and seek more, more, more), are a few links...

12 April 2007

Vonnegut

After hearing on the radio this morning that Kurt Vonnegut had died, I changed my plans for what I would do in classes. Instead of doing whatever I had planned, I read my students Vonnegut's story "Harrison Bergeron", not because it's my favorite, but because it's short enough to read aloud in class and because it was one of the first of his that I read. Some of my students had read one or two of Vonnegut's novels. Others had never heard of him. To everybody who passed by the open door of the room, I shouted, "Kurt Vonnegut died!" More than one person, shocked by my exclamation, stopped in to say a few words about one or another of Vonnegut's books that had meant something to them. The senior member of our English department told me stories of being in a class Vonnegut taught at the Iowa Writers' Workshop many years ago. "A helluva good guy," he said.

For me, a love of Vonnegut began with Cat's Cradle, then was reignited, more permanently, a few years later with Hocus Pocus. Both books blew my brain apart and reconfigured it. Opened up entire worlds of possibility. Lately, it's been Mother Night. I've used it again and again in classes, and it (along with J.M. Coetzee's very different Disgrace) is one of my two favorite novels to teach. It gets students talking. It contains immense depths beneath its apparently matter-of-fact surface. It is profoundly unsettling. And (unlike Disgrace) it's got a lot of funny bits.

One of my students said, "Mr. Cheney, you seem really upset about this." I said I was, but not in a mournful way, not in the way you are for a life cut short, but rather in a more selfish way -- the way that comes from knowing you now live in a world that this person, whose consciousness was so important to your own, does not live in. I'm glad to have lived in a world that Vonnegut shared for a time, but sad to soldier on without him.

For links to Vonnegut on the web, Ed Champion's got a great list.

It's impressive how admired Vonnegut is by so many people of different tastes and ideologies. All over the internet today, writers and bloggers are noting Vonnegut's death, saying a few words of remembrance, paying some honor to him, confessing tears. Here's a list of a few of the people I've seen mentioning the man and his life: Laila Lalami, Chris Barzak, Maud Newton, Clifford Garstang, Levi Asher, Dan Green, Deb Biancotti, Steven Beattie, Matthew Tiffany, Jodee Stanley, Christopher Rowe, Sonya Taaffe, Alex Irvine, Gwenda Bond, Ben Peek, Scott Eric Kaufman, and many, many more.

For some last words from here, how about the end of the introduction to Mother Night:
There's another clear moral to this tale, now that I think about it: When you're dead you're dead.

And yet another moral occurs to me now: Make love when you can. It's good for you.

10 April 2007

Interfictions Available Now!


I just noticed that Interfictions, edited by Delia Sherman and Theodora Goss, and containing my story "A Map of the Everywhere" (as well as a bunch of others that are actually worth reading), is now in stock at Amazon, Powells, Barnes & Noble, and -- for those of you outside the U.S. -- The Book Depository (free worldwide [mostly] shipping).

I haven't had a chance to read much in the book yet, but what I have read is marvelous, and the breadth and diversity of the authors is a particular strength of the anthology. And the cover. Love the cover.

08 April 2007

Easter Sunday PKD-in-the-Wild Sighting

Roberto Bolaño, from Distant Star:
Bibiano's investigations in the United States were not, however, limited to the world of board games. I heard from a friend (though I don't know if the story is true) that Bibiano contacted a member of the Philip K. Dick Society in Glen Ellen, California, who was, for want of a better expression, a collector of literary curiosities. Apparently Bibiano entered into correspondence with this individual, who specialized in "secret messages in literature, painting, theatre, and cinema," and told him the story of Carlos Wieder. ... He had a wide range of friends: detectives, activists fighting for the rights of minority groups, feminists marooned in west coast motels, directors and producers who would never get a film off the ground and led lives as reckless and solitary as his own. The members of the Philip K. Dick Society, enthusiastic but discreet people as a rule, regarded him as a madman, but harmless and basically a good guy, as well as being a genuine expert on the works of Dick.

07 April 2007

The Davis/Lethem Letters

Ray Davis has posted his exchange of emails with Jonathan Lethem about Lethem's 1998 Voice Literary Supplement essay, "The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction". The exchange was originally published in The New York Review of Science Fiction.

06 April 2007

No Comfort Here

Chris Barzak has posted some interesting thoughts on writing and reading, and he ends with a meditation on "comfort fiction" or "consolatory art":
That’s another thing that’s been on my mind lately: consolatory art. What these days, in the speculative fiction field at least, is being called comfort fiction (at least sometimes, I think, by some people who see consolation and comfort as one and the same thing). I think the rise of the comfort fiction brigades has done some damage in its crusade to rid the world of fantasies that lie to us about the nature of living in various ways (and not good lies, not ones that are really truly helpful to us, so I sympathize with what they’re saying about those in that way). But I do think that to a certain extent there’s been a sort of confusion made at times of two different sorts of writing that are separate things altogether, for me at least. One of these I think of as wish fulfillment stories, which are the ones that lie about the nature of our lives perhaps. The other I think of as consolatory stories: stories that can console while still telling the truth. I think that’s possible. To tell the truth and still find consolation in something. Not comfort, but consolation, something to go on, to feed and keep the spirit while we’re here for a little longer. Not to insulate us from the horrors of living here, but to stoke our fires and keep us going on despite the wolves howling at the door.
After reading this, I tried to think about why I didn't want to accept the terminology Chris uses here, much as I like his attempt to expand beyond simplistic ideas of "we must write about the nastiest of the nastiness of the world so that our readers suffer no illusions, bwahahahahahahaaaaa!" For one thing, I think the comfort/discomfort dichotomy is a false one -- good writing is too complex to fit into any such simple category (similarly, "transgressive fiction") and good readers are too sophisticated to let texts do only one thing for them. Then I remembered something John Gardner wrote in On Becoming a Novelist about "the Pollyanna mask" (sunny hand-me-down language, "the cranked-up zombie emotion of a writer who feels nothing in his daily life or nothing he trusts enough to find his own words for") and then what he said about a paragaph from something by Harlan Ellison:
This is not the Pollyanna style favored by hack writers of the twenties and thirties but the hack-writer style that superseded it, disPollyanna. Sunny optimism, with its fondness for italics, gives way to an ill-founded cynicism, also supported by italics. ... Sentence fragments become common (a standard means of falsely heightening the emotion of what one says), and commas disappear ... in rhetorical imitation of William Faulkner, who was also on thin ice. (Dropping commas is all right except if one's purpose is to increase the rush of the sentence and thus suggest emotion not justified by what is being said.) ... Crude jokes and images, slang phrases borrowed from foreign languages, are all stock in disPollyanna fiction -- in an attempt to shock prudes. No one is shocked, of course, though a few may misread their annoyance as shock. One is annoyed because the whole thing is phony, an imitation of things too often imitated before. The problem with such writers, it ought to be mentioned, is not that they are worse people than those who wrote in Pollyanna. They are almost exactly the same people: idealists, people who simple-mindedly long for goodness, justice, and sanity; the difference is one of style. ...

Both Pollyanna and disPollyanna limit the writer in the same ways, leading him to miss and simplify experience, and cutting him off from all but fellow believers.
I much prefer Gardner's terminology to that of comfort vs. discomfort, because what it points out is simplistic thinking and failure of craft in particular ways. The people who condemn (or praise) "comfort fiction" are complaining not only of particular failures of craft, but also of what they see as failures of ideology and metaphysics. They imagine an audience and they expend much energy disdaining it, because to them these people (if they exist, which I'm not certain of) are sheep following a shepherd who drugs them with lies and illusions. "Read your silly Harry Potter," they say, "and wallow in your ignorance while I dig into the marrow of life with my chosen text of superior reality-smashing in-yer-face this-is-how-it-isness." (Yes, I find the sanctimoniousness of such a position far more repulsive than the uncritical acceptance of unexceptional writing.)

The problem for me is that most disPollyanna books just can't accomplish what they seem to desire. For a work of fiction to change your view of the world, it's got to be either less fiction than propaganda-cum-journalism (think The Jungle) or a work of subtlety and breadth that connects, in some personal way, to who you are at a particular time. The latter is likely to be a marvelous piece of art, but it's also unlikely to be anything that could be prescribed, because what is both necessary and uncontrollable is the relationship between the reader and the text, and readers use texts in immensely varied ways. Unless you're a masochist, you're unlikely to finish reading something you find annoying or disturbing, and so the effect of such fiction is merely to confirm a view of the world you already hold. You could call it comfortable anti-comfort.

It is because I work from the assumption that the greatest art is unpredictable in its effect that I am wary of using the terms "comfort" or "consolation" with regard to the best fiction. Not because there aren't books and stories and poems and plays that I find comforting or consoling, but because I don't think whatever comforting/consoling properties a text possesses are universal or even inherent in the text itself. It's unlikely that what works for me will also work for lots of other people, or that what works for me in particular circumstances will work in other circumstances. Thus, once a writer sets out to be comforting and consoling, they've already failed and will probably produce treacle. Similarly, when a writer sets out to be all clear-eyed about the hideous awfulness of the world and wake readers up to the drab wretchedness of their empty, wasteful lives, they're likely to produce something that is more rant than art, more self-satisfied than satisfying.

I think Gardner was smart to focus on language, because though great writing possesses something ineffable that can triumph over some failures of language (or else how would great books survive bad translations?), to start writing from a position that almost surely guarantees you will fill your pages with familiar, sentimental, overwrought phrases that represent the world through simplistic and received ideas ... well, to start writing from such a position seems self-defeating to me and a failure of ambition.

We live in a time when far more pages are written than any one person could read in ten lifetimes, and the only justification for adding to those pages that I can think of is to add something that strives for an honesty and clarity of language and structure, something that is neither comforting nor discomforting by design, but is, instead, a tool for thinking and feeling more powerfully about the fact that we are alive in a world more complex than any of our philosophies.

John Gardner makes a big claim for art that is neither Pollyanna nor disPollyanna, and though it courts its own sort of sanctimony, I think it is a claim worth considering:
A young writer firmly hooked on bad science fiction, or the worst of the hard-boiled detective school, or tell-it-like-it-is so-called serious fiction, fashionably interpreting all experience as crap, may get published, if he works hard, but the odds are that he'll never be an artist. That may not bother him much. Hack writers are sometimes quite successful, even admired. But so far as I can see, they are of slight value to humanity.

05 April 2007

Words Without Borders: Africa

The April edition of Words Without Borders has been posted, and its focus this month is on writing from Africa. It includes an excerpt from Ahmadou Kourouma's novel about a child soldier, Allah is Not Obliged, a review of which I just turned in to Rain Taxi. I can't say it's a book I loved or even liked -- it's brutal, profane, frustrating, and I found some of Kourouma's stylistic choices (as translated by Frank Wynne) annoying -- but I also can't say I've read a novel that has kept me thinking so much in months, and so I actually recommend it highly. It will be out in the U.S. in May in an edition from Anchor Books.

Words Without Borders will be hosting a discussion on April 27 at the PEN American Center in New York on the topic, "Every Day in Africa":
Americans’ exposure to Africa is mostly through press coverage focused on current events, with a bias toward the sensational and tragic. This discussion will offer a glimpse into the richness of the literary voices from Africa: these writers will talk about their work, the traditions they draw on, their styles and literary choices, and their tremendously diverse accomplishments.
I won't be able to get down to NY to see it, much as I would like to, but if anybody out there would like to go and then write about it here, please let me know. (The PEN Center is pretty good about putting audio online, so let's hope they do so with this event.)

I've been meaning to write more about literature(s) from Africa here, but life has gotten in the way, and so really I've been meaning to write about all sorts of different things and haven't had the time for any of it. Soon, though, I expect to have at least something to say about Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga, a novel I'm using in one of my classes this term.

03 April 2007

Oh, the Humanity!

From an article headlined "Starbucks vs. Ethiopian Coffee Farmers":
...earlier this month, Starbucks chairperson Howard Schultz, who is on the list of the world's richest people, told Fortune magazine that "Starbucks is the quintessential people-based business ... Everything we do is about humanity."

02 April 2007

Out There

A few things from around the web...
  • A version of the introduction by Jeff & Ann VanderMeer for Best American Fantasy

  • I recently interviewed Nick Mamatas about his new novel, Under My Roof. Here's a piece of it:

    MC What is it about nuclear weaponry that appeals to Daniel, do you think? So many contemporary stories of apocalypse involve biological weapons or environmental catastrophes that the threat of nuclear destruction feels almost like a hearkening back to the Cold War. Would anthrax in the garden gnome have had the same effect?

    NM Pfft! The fault isn't in the atom, it's in the popular imagination. Anthrax is the WMD of wusses and wimps. People who work around livestock can contract it and keep on working. You can be vaccinated against weaponized anthrax. The Sverdlovsk disaster in 1979, when a Soviet plant accidentally released weaponized anthrax into the air, barely killed 100 people. The book would have been three pages long had there been only an anthrax deterrent. Same thing with chemical weapons. Just wait for the wind to change if one goes off, then march in. The only real city-destroyers remain nukes.


  • Scott McLemee on independent bookstores and Borders's restructuring: "One provision of the new strategic plan is a call for 'increasing effectiveness of merchandise presentation.' The press release does not give details, but somehow it bring to mind an image of life-size animatronic displays of Ann Coulter and Al Gore waving copies of their books."

  • John Joseph Adams interviews Rick Bowes about his Nebula-nominated novel From the Files of the Time Rangers.

  • At the blog of the National Book Critics Circle: A conversation with Julie Phillips.

  • New issues have been posted of Lone Star Stories and Farrago's Wainscot.

  • Levi Asher offers a dissent on Cormac McCarthy's The Road. (Nope, I haven't read it yet, though I hope to sometime between now and a time that is not now. I do like to see well-considered, thoughtful, articulate dissent about books that mostly receive praise, though, because I think such discussion is healthy and gets us all thinking more carefully about what we read and how we value it.)

  • Some stories from Africa that I've read: A discussion at the BBC of the question, "Is Angola Africa's new hope?" Five African Union peacekeepers have been killed in the Darfur region of Sudan. After four days of fierce battles, Mogadishu is, for the moment, somewhat calm, though thousands of people are fleeing. The government of Liberia and the International Rescue Committee are trying to get 15,000 child laborers back in school. The BBC collects bloggers' reactions to events in Zimbabwe. At one of those blogs, Kubatana.net, Natasha Msonza compares similarities between Zimbabwe and Zambia's histories.

01 April 2007

Delany Novel Includes "Scrotum"

_______ CITY, NEW HAMPSHIRE -- Just as the controversy over the presence of a particular word in an award-winning children's book seems to have died down, Barnaby Kershaw, a math teacher at _____ City High School, has called on the librarians of the world to ban Samuel Delany's novel Hogg because, he says, it includes the word "scrotum".

"Children could encounter this book, read that word, and be scarred for life," Kershaw said. "It is our duty, indeed our moral responsibility as educators, to make sure that children are protected. If a child brought a copy of Hogg to you and said they didn't understand this word and wanted you to explain it, what would you say? Not everyone is ready for that sort of conversation."

Mr. Delany could not be reached for comment, but the renowned scholar K. Leslie Steiner told us by email: "It could, indeed, be possible that readers of Hogg will not know what the word 'scrotum' means, and this could certainly affect some of their understanding of the novel. There are quite a few other words in the book that I expect are familiar to them, though, even if they do not want to admit it, and so their ability to comprehend the majority of the novel will not be impaired. In fact, now that I think about it, I don't even remember if the word 'scrotum' is used anywhere in the book. Is it? Certainly, the signified of that particular signifier is present (or, rather, other signifiers for it are present), comprehended, and manipulated by a textual representation of a young boy, but frankly I don't ever remember the word 'scrotum' appearing in the text."

A representative of the American Library Association said the organization is not in favor of banning books, and that open discussion is an important American value, though of course individual libraries are free to determine the contents of their collections. Mr. Kershaw said the ALA has a long history of hating our freedoms, and that he intends to make his case to the American public once he has finished writing up a platform for his candidacy as president of the Science Fiction Writers of America.

Insect Souls

Douglas Hofstadter:
If a mosquito has a soul, it is mostly evil. So I don’t have too many qualms about putting a mosquito out of its misery. I’m a little more respectful of ants.