28 April 2008

Blown Away: American Women and Guns by Caitlin Kelly

It's rare to find a book about guns in the U.S. that doesn't come across as hysterical -- either the hysteria of someone seemingly determined to live up to every possible stereotype of a "gun nut" or the hysteria of someone seemingly determined to live up to every possible stereotype of an out-of-touch wussy liberal. Caitlin Kelly's Blown Away (excerpts available here) doesn't quite live up to the claims on its front cover -- "an unbiased exploration of the right to bear arms" -- but it is certainly the most even-handed and rational book about guns and American gun culture that I've encountered.

Though Blown Away doesn't seem unbiased to me -- the tilt is definitely in favor of people's right to have access to guns -- I'm not sure what "unbiased" really would look like, or what value it would serve. What I want is for a writer to play fair, to be aware of complexities, to avoid caricaturing differing viewpoints, and Kelly does that quite well. What makes her book important, though, is not just that it doesn't seem to be written by a person with an axe to grind, but that it gives a vivid and multifaceted perspective on the intersections of violence, gender, race, class, and culture, and it does so through the testimonies of people from all around the country, of all sorts of different backgrounds, and adds context to these testimonies with a wealth of statistics. Though Kelly offers some ideas in the final chapter for what to do about problems of violence against women in the U.S., her book is at its best when it is posing questions rather than answers, because it would require many more books and much longer conversations to develop real answers to the thorniest, knottiest questions.

Kelly's statistics are what stood out to me at first -- over 200 million guns in private, legal ownership in the U.S.; 11 to 17 million guns owned by women; hundreds of thousands of women the victims of rape and sexual assault each year (and rape is the most underreported crime in the country); an estimated 17.7 million women the survivors of rape or attempted rape -- 1 out of every 5 American women; 3 out of 4 American women the victims of crime at least once in their lives; 29% of rapists armed; 17,424 Americans killed by guns in 2001 (and 43,501 in motor vehicle deaths); $21 billion spent annually to treat gunshot victims; $126,620,000 raised from federal excise taxes on long guns and ammo in 1998 and another $35,528,000 raised from an excise tax on handguns...

Blown Away starts from these statistics and then expands their context with the stories of women who have chosen or not chosen to arm themselves (including in the past -- I particularly liked the second chapter, on the history of women and guns in the U.S.), women who have suffered violence of all sorts, women who have differing views of guns, gun ownership, and violence because of their race, class, sexuality, or occupation. The writing is sometimes repetitive, some sections are far more fleshed out than others, but the overall picture is what matters, because Kelly tries to give as diverse and complex a portrait of the American landscape as she could gain access to.

My own biases may have colored some of my reading of the book -- I'm sure people who are strongly pro- or anti-gun would read it differently than I. I grew up surrounded by guns of all sorts, from Civil War antiques to military machineguns, and because they were always around, they never possessed any mystique for me. The only time I really much enjoyed the things was the day after Halloween each year when my father and I would blast our pumpkins with his pistol-grip shotgun. If ever a person was raised in an environment to become a gun nut, it was me; and yet I never had the inclination. My adolescent rebellion, such as it was, was to begin to think Ronald Reagan might be something less than holy, and I did my best to become a radical leftist, then, with time, settled into my current state of boring bourgeois liberalism.

Never, though, did I take up the anti-gun cause, because having lived amidst guns and gun culture for so long, staunchly anti-gun views seemed to me as ignorant and ridiculous as the often macho and unreasonable views of the radical pro-gunners. I couldn't ever support the NRA because of their close ties to the worst right-wing elements in the U.S. (though I still have my life membership, given to me in lieu of a baptism -- I expect I'm one of the only people ever to have been simultaneously a member of the NRA and a contributor to the War Resisters League), but it wasn't until I encountered Blown Away that I found a perspective that seemed to fit with what I know of the world, and what I know is that the two sides, pro- and anti-gun, demonize each other to no good effect except to make our laws more and more incoherent and irrational, and to distract the conversation away from the deep and complex causes of violence within our culture.

More to Life

Matt Zoller Seitz is one of the few film critics whose reviews I will read regardless of what he is reviewing, because even when my taste is different from his (his love of Brian DePalma perplexes me, for instance), his reviews usually make me think about or notice things I wouldn't otherwise.

He's giving up print journalism, though. In a long conversation with Keith Uhlich (who will be taking over command of Seitz's collaborative blog The House Next Door) this passage particularly struck me:
There’s more to life than movies, and I don’t think that, ten years ago, I don’t think I would have said that. But I’m saying it now: there is more to life than movies. And I remember a conversation with Sean Burns—I think it might have been in the comments section of the blog—he casually mentioned that Gene Siskel, God rest his soul, was… there was somebody who looked down on Siskel for saying that he skipped some film festival to go to a basketball game. And Burns was completely approving of [Siskel], and I am too. I am too: Go to the goddamn basketball game! And when I look back on those hundreds and hundreds of hours that I spent watching movies—many of which were not that memorable, and many of which did not tell a whole lot that I didn’t know—when I realized that they were hours that are gone now and I’m not getting them back… It makes me mad. It makes me mad, honestly, that I’m not gonna get those hours back. You know those are hours I could have been spending with my family. With my loved ones.
Seitz won't be disappearing, though. He's got various film projects to work on.
I’m just at the point where I feel like I need to try to concentrate my energies, which are not as profuse as they used to be, on things that I think have a reasonable shot at making me happy. Print does not satisfy me in the way that it once did. In fact, it feels too much like work. And I want to do things that feel like play. And maybe turn ‘em into work, you know? The ideal is to have your job be something that doesn’t feel like a job, and that was the case for me for years with print criticism. It’s not the case anymore.
Seventeen years of writing criticism sounds to me right now like an eternity, so much as I will miss looking for Seitz's reviews, I completely understand his decision, and look forward to seeing the results of his future work.

27 April 2008


When we were working on the first volume of Best American Fantasy, I said to Jeff and Ann that I wished we could reprint some nonfiction, because some of the most wondrous things I'd encountered were essays. I had New England Review at the forefront of my mind when I said this, because I sit down and read each issue that arrives immediately, and most of what excites me is the eclectic nonfiction they publish (which is not to say the poems and stories they publish are not exciting, too; many are, and I've passed some on to Ann and Jeff. Yes, we're still working on BAF 2, the "patience is a virtue" edition...)

The latest issue of NER contains an essay by J.M. Tyree, "Lovecraft at the Automat". It's not an essay that will offer too much that's new to a Lovecraft devotee, I expect, but I'm only a casual Lovecraftian, and generally more interested in his life and circumstances than in his writing. It's fun, though, to see a journal like NER giving pages to a serious look at Lovecraft in an essay that more than once references not only Richard Wright, but also China Miéville.

The essay is mostly about Lovecraft's brief time in New York, its effect on his racism and xenophobia, the manifestations of that racism and xenophobia in his writing, and how such attitudes, transmogrified into cosmic terrors, become general enough to appeal to any of our own insecurities and neuroses. The essay begins:
In his 1945 memoir Black Boy, Richard Wright describes how as a child he became addicted to the pulp fiction supplement of a racist white newspaper. What Wright loved was reading a "thrilling horror story" in the magazine section of a Chicago paper "designed to circulate among rural, white Protestant readers." There is no reason to suspect that Wright was reading H.P. Lovecraft -- in fact, the habit was probably acquired before Lovecraft began to publish. But Wright's sense of shock and recognition when the awful truth dawns on him parallels the feelings many readers have when they discover the racism that manifests itself in Edgar Allan Poe or Lovecraft.
There is a poignancy in Wright's generosity and gratitude to such stories that implies an essential role for them in his overall intellectual growth. Could we borrow or adapt this notion from Wright for a more judicious reading of Lovecraft? It is almost as if pulp fiction, by hinting at the possibility of other worlds, whether real or fantastic, cannot help but liberate a young mind hungering for something different from the everyday reality in which it is confined. Certainly the curious desire that young writers feel to copy Lovecraft's stories does not come from a fixation on their explicit or submerged prejudices; it seems to come instead from a desire to create art suggesting hidden dimensions and extraordinary circumstances lurking invisibly in the creases, cracks, and corners of our humdrum world.
This is a familiar idea (perhaps even clichéd, which isn't to suggest wrong) about a reader's relationship to such fiction, but I think it's one worth reiterating, particularly within the context Tyree puts it in, because it highlights the reader's agency -- it recognizes that readers use texts in lots of different ways. Even stories created from a racist impulse can have an effect that is quite different from what the writer intended. Such a recognition does not excuse the original impulse, but it helps us remember that texts have all sorts of different and often contradictory contexts: the context in which they were created and the contexts in which they were, and are, received. (I wish Tyree had mentioned Nick Mamatas's Move Under Ground, which adds yet more context to all of this in a clever and thought-provoking way.)

Tyree's essay ends abruptly, and on the whole it feels more like an interesting and potentially illuminating beginning of something longer than it feels like a satisfying essay in and of itself, but there are some marvelous passages. I was particularly taken with some of the connections Tyree makes between Lovecraft and other writers -- he brings in Conrad a few times, and compares Lovecraft's xenophobia to Henry James's similar ideas, and how the similarities manifested themselves in very different responses to New York. He also mentions Thoreau, who lived in New York in 1843:
Their writing about the city was inextricably bound up with their feeling of revulsion toward an urban scene they had no wish to understand. And in New York, both writers discovered not only what they hated, but what they loved: in Thoreau's case, Concord and the possibilities of natural wilderness, and in Lovecraft's case, colonial Providence and the survivals of the past. Interestingly, both writers started on the first literary productions of their maturity while sunk in urban unhappiness. Perhaps it was a matter of imagining anotehr world to inhabit besides the one they found themselves in.
(Tyree mentioned Thoreau's time in NY in an earlier NER essay on William Gaddis which is well worth reading and is available online.)

One of the interesting tidbits in the essay is that Lovecraft met the poet Hart Crane -- the two lived in the same part of Brooklyn Heights -- and almost met Allen Tate. This made me think that perhaps the best text to set alongside Lovecraft's New York years is Samuel Delany's "Atlantis: Model 1924" (in Atlantis: Three Tales), which doesn't mention Lovecraft, but Crane is essential to the story (Tate makes an appearance, too), and one passage about a young black man's excitement over pulp magazines' tales of exotic Africa ("the sound of the twentieth century infiltrating the silence of a past so deep its bottom was source and fundament of time and of mankind itself") ends:
...the magazines were in a shopping bag leaning up by the brick wall when he lifted it on the paper beneath was a picture of KKK men in bedsheets holding high a torch menacing the darkness of the black newsprint from within the photo's right framing the shopping bag just sitting there Sam thought where anyone could have taken it

Anyone at all.

26 April 2008

Looking Forward

I've just returned from a week in New Hampshire, which is why things have been quiet around these here parts.

Most of my friends know at this point, but I think it's safe to make the news public now: I will be moving back to New Hampshire at the end of June. The reasons are many. Even before my father's death in December, I knew I was not particularly happy teaching at the school where I've been teaching this year -- it's not a bad school by any means, but I lack the classroom management skills to be as effective a teacher there as I would like to be. After my father's death it became clear that settling his estate was going to be a long and involved process, and so I began to toy with the idea of moving back to New Hampshire, though I really would like a few more years of easy access to Manhattan... But the more work I, my family members, my friends, my lawyer and accountant, etc. did trying to put some order to all of what my father left behind, the more I realized I just couldn't remain so far away, even if I had wanted to stay at my current job, or I'd be dealing with all the various details of the estate for the next decade. (One day I'll be able to be less vague about all this. For now I'll just say that if I wrote the story of my life as a novel, nobody would publish it, because they would say it was unrealistic and unbelievable.)

Though I am somewhat disappointed to be leaving the NYC area, there are lots of good things about my upcoming move. The result that will be most apparent here, I hope, is that I will finally have more time to read and write. Not a vast amount more than I have had before, but certainly more than I have right now as I try to teach five different classes.

Another good thing is that I will, for the first time, have the opportunity to teach some college classes. I'll be an adjunct teacher at Plymouth State University, a place I know quite well, since my mother has worked there all of my life, and the library there was a lifeline for me as a kid.

The classes I'll be teaching are both part of the university's general education program, which means most of my students will be in their first or second year of college. One course, "The Outsider" is a kind of intro to lit class that is also supposed to use some film (and thus be interdisciplinary). The challenge designing a syllabus for it has been narrowing down the material, since almost anything can fit. The other course is "The F-Word: Feminism in the United States" and it is the core course for the Women's Studies minor. I got recruited for it when another teacher suddenly wasn't able to teach it and the course might have been cancelled for the fall if I didn't take it on. At first I was terrified, because though I have a good background in queer theory, etc., I don't have a more than general knowledge of much feminist writing since about the mid-'90s. But this is my chance to catch up, to fill in some gaps, and to think about ways to encourage students to do the sort of self-exploration and societal exploration I hope to do myself as I design and teach the course (with help and input from the professor who first created it at the university).

My return will be a homecoming in the most literal sense -- I'll be living in the house I grew up in, a building I have not spent much time in since I was eighteen. I'll be teaching at the college where I worked my first lowly summer jobs. I'll be sorting through the materials my father cared so much about, the items he built his life around, and that I have seldom been better than indifferent to. I expect the next year to be deeply strange, but also, I hope, healing. We shall see.

18 April 2008

Talking Animals

The latest issue of BOMB magazine includes a conversation between Jonathan Lethem and Lydia Millet -- it's unfortunately not online, but it's so good that it's really worth the price of the magazine to read it. One of the best interviews I've read in a while. Here's a sample:
Jonathan Lethem: I was recently reading an essay by Mary McCarthy, a quite brilliant, free-ranging one that she first gave as a lecture in Europe, called "The Fact in Fiction." At the outset she defines the novel in quite exclusive terms, terms that of course made me very nervous: "...if you find birds and beasts talking in a book you are reading you can be sure it is not a novel." Well, as the author of at least one and arguably two or three novels with talking animals in them, I felt disgruntled. McCarthy is one of those critics whose brilliance dedicates itself often to saying what artists shouldn't do -- like the equally celebrated and brilliant James Wood, with whom I disagree constantly. For me, the novel is by its nature impure, omnivorous, inconsistent, and paradoxical -- it is most itself when it is doing impossible things, straddling modes, gobbling contradiction. But anyway, when I lived with McCarthy's declaration for a while, I found myself replying, "But in the very best novels the animals want to talk, or the humans wish the animals could talk, or both." [...]

Lydia Millet: [...]The animals that want to talk, the people that want them to...exactly. But to the critics -- it's so easy, and so exhilarating, to denounce things. Isn't it? But prohibitions like that -- "It's not a novel if it has talking animals in it," "It's not a novel if it has philosophy in it" -- besides being snobbish and condescending, serve more to elevate the critic than to advance or innovate the form. In fact, I think it's a sign of an art form losing power in culture when its arbiters try to define it by its limitations, what it can't or isn't allowed to do. Shoring up the borders of the form, in other words, to isolate it and make it puny. Novels should do anything and everything they can pull off. The pulling off is the hard part, of course, but my feeling is if you don't walk a line where you're struggling to make things work, struggling with the ideas and shape and tone, you're not doing art. Art is the struggle to get beyond yourself. And if you want to use talking animals to do that, and you can make them beautiful, nothing is verboten. [...] Once you exclude you're calcifying. You're well into middle age and headed for death.

17 April 2008

Aimé Césaire (1913-2008)

Via Pierre Joris's blog, I just learned that the great writer and politician Aimé Césaire has died.

I didn't pay much attention to Césaire until grad school, when one of my favorite teachers (and later one of my thesis readers) was Keith Walker, whose particular specialty is francophone literature and whose particular interest is Césaire. His passion transferred to me, though I can't read French, so I've been stuck with the few English translations of Césaire's many works. Last year, I used Césaire's play A Tempest and excerpts from his Discourse on Colonialism in my AP Lit class (to go along with Shakespeare's Tempest), and I would do so again in a heartbeat, because it blew the kids' minds (in a good way).

Keith Walker told me a story that I only remember vague details of, but I'll tell what I can of it here. He used it to explain to me when he had fallen in love with Césaire's work himself. He was at school in France, and his roommate had covered the ceiling over his bed with writing -- beautiful, stunning, strange words. Keith asked him what it was, and learned that it was lines from Césaire's great poem "Notebook of a Return to the Native Land" -- his roommate had written those lines above his bed so he would see them just before he fell into sleep and be welcomed by them every morning. Keith was stunned that a poem could have such power for a person, and he sought out Césaire's work (and eventually Césaire himself). He said that in Martinique he went to a political rally that was as much like an interactive poetry reading as it was a political event, and that what really impressed him was that so many ordinary people held this supposedly "difficult" writing so close to their hearts.

If you don't know Césaire's poetry, The Collected Poetry as translated by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith is utterly marvelous. (A brief excerpt from their translation of "Notebook of a Return to the Native Land" is available online.)
on the jade of your own words may you be laid down in simplicity

conjured by the warmth of triumphant life
in compliance with the operculated mouth of your silence
and the lofty amnesty of seashells

--Aimé Césaire, from "Tomb of Paul Eluard"
trans. Clayton Ehsleman and Annette Smith

16 April 2008

This is Not a Poem

I'm glad to see that the desire to come up with stable definitions and labels for difficult-to-define-and-label things exists not only within the science fiction community, where the desire for taxonomy seems sometimes pathologic, but also within the world at large. Exhibit A: The Queen's English Society is demanding that poems be defined as things with rhyme and meter (or, rather, metre).

Those of us who have survived interminable discussions of what, exactly, makes something science fiction or fantasy can probably help our friends at the Queen's English Society. In fact, we can let them know that the desire for definition does not end with one term. Oh no. One of the great laws of the universe is: Taxonomy breeds taxonomy. Once we have one label or category, we need many. And then the many need many of their own.

For instance, the Queen's English Society will need to determine whether everything defined as "poetry" is (for instance) immersive poetry or submersive poetry, and then they will need to define whether immersive poetry can be subversive when it is not submersive, and if submersive poetry is inherently subversive or if its subversivity is flexible. Then, of course, they will have to figure out if it is hard immersive poetry or soft immersive poetry, and how such a hard/soft binary interacts with the hard/soft binary of submersive poetry, which is a different sort of hard/soft binary because if it's hard/soft and immersive then it tends to sink in polders, while if it is hard/soft and submersive, it can float in polders. That then opens up the new category of Things That Float in Polders, but we're going to have to wait for a panel discussion at whatever convention is happening next weekend to know if poems that are submersive truly belong in the secondary (or is it primary?) category of Things That Float in Polders, or if the submersive subversive poems actually stand at the edge of the polder and interrogate it. Which makes them into submersive subversive interrogators (SSIs), and some people claim that SSIs are actually mystery stories, not poems. Even if they rhyme. But have no fear -- I'm sure the upcoming anthology of The New Submersive Poetry will clear everything up... (Alas, having been down this route before, I know some reviewers will claim that the book only includes a few truly submersive poems, and those few are not subversively submersive, which makes their submersivity merely an artifact of nostalgia rather than a storm against a barricade, but this is okay because it leaves room for the next anthology: The New Storming & Subversive Submersive Poetry, which will be a really cool book, I'm sure, because it will have a blog. Actually, strike that -- it won't even have a book, just a blog.)

If our friends at the Queen's English Society get tired of defining and subdefining poetry (perish the thought!), they can always argue about the origins of poetry and the first poem. In fact, they should claim one poem to be The First Poem -- perhaps Percy Shelley's "Queen Mab: A Philosophical Poem" will do. It's even got the word "poem" in the title, so it must be the first one. Once they have identified a First Poem, the real fun will begin, because it will allow all poem-like objects before it to be categorized as proto-poems, and the possibilities for what can (and can't!) be defined as proto-poems are practically endless. This will allow at least a century of argument, and between this and the argument about defining poetry much fun can be had by many generations of ... people who like to argue about such things! Wheeee!

The real question, though, is what is a pipe?

14 April 2008


My latest Strange Horizons column has been posted: "The Hero, Pulped". It's all about my latest obsession, The Spider. The article that sparked this obsession, "The Spider: America's Prophetic Epic of Terrorism" by Stuart Hopen, appears in the latest (Spring 2008) issue of Rain Taxi, but unfortunately it's not available online. (You could use this as your excuse to subscribe to RT and get a year's worth of great interviews, articles, and reviews of books you aren't likely to hear about elsewhere...)

The column has some links to various sites of information about The Spider, but if you're curious about where to procure some of the stories, the best source I know is The Vintage Library, which sells books (including all 8 Carrol & Graf editions for $20), pulp replicas, and electronic editions.

A year ago, Baen Books published The Spider: Robot Titans of Gotham, which reprints a few Spider stories, parts of which can be read online via that link. In June, Baen will release The Spider: City of Doom, which includes the story I wrote about in my column, The City Destroyer (half of which is online there).

These are utterly bizarre stories -- very much part of their era in their casual sexism and fascination with all that is exotic to American white males, yet the brutality of their events is so vast that it cannot be assimilated into any sort of simple pulp system of morality, making them almost Existentialist in their effect.

13 April 2008

Two Distinctions

Richard Lupoff, from a review of Science Fiction of the Thirties (ed. Damon Knight) and The Fantastic Pulps (ed. Peter Haining) in Algol, Summer 1976:
Anybody who has followed this column for a number of years must be aware that I have a great fondness for the old pulp (and even pre-pulp) stuff. Yet I despise most of the contemporary would-be heirs and imitators of the pulp writers, and among moderns strongly prefer the serious and even experimental authors. ...

Those old pulp writers, Doc Smith, David Keller, Edmond Hamilton, Murray Leinster, Seabury Quinn, Lovecraft, Otto Binder, Jack Williamson, and all the rest of that crowd -- were writing the best they knew how! Their ideas might seem elementary, their technique primitive, to us. But to themselves and their contemporaries, the ideas were fresh and startling, the technique the most advanced they were capable of (and very likely the most sophisticated their readers were capable of assimilating).

And that's exactly the case with today's avant-garde -- Delany, Disch, Malzberg, Moorcock, Aldiss, and Le Guin. They're pushing at the boundaries, working at the limits of their capabilities, and sometimes stumbling as a result but also achieving things fresh and excellent. Roger Zelazny did that for a while, and that's why some of his early triumphs are still revered while his later works are disdained and there are people annoyed (or at least disappointed) with him -- he's settled back into the easy and the comfortable.

And the people who write "neo-pulp" are doing that and worse. They're not pushing at the boundaries ... nor even standing beside them, but retreating at speed to the old limitations, the old ideas and the old ways.
I thought this was an interesting distinction to make, and one I am mostly sympathetic too, since the pulp era fascinates me. I'm not sure I'd say the old pulp writers were writing the best they knew how, or the best way that was available to them, but rather that they were doing what they could under the circumstances -- circumstances that required writers to churn out a tremendous amount of words to be able to make a living. And yet a living could be made, and an audience existed, and the interaction between what the writers and publishers were capable of producing is an interaction worth as much study, I think, as the interactions that produced various other sorts of texts at the time.

The same issue of Algol contains a letter from Brian Stableford that also brings up some ideas worth considering:
The great majority of the words which are produced and read under the label of SF are not well-written, but are nevertheless successful -- indeed, may well be more successful than SF which is well written. ... I am not applauding this fact, but I am trying to explain it. From the point of view of the aesthetic critic, of course, it is not a fact which needs explaining -- the aesthetic critic accepts that 90% of everything is worthless and henceforward is content to ignore that 90%. If the fact that large numbers of people enjoy and prefer this 90% occurs to him at all it is simply seen as confirmation of his own aesthetic superiority. Literary criticism, being an entirely artificial discipline, thrives on its self-justificatory elitism. As a sociologist of literature, however, I cannot accept such narrow perspectives. I want to know why people read what they do, and why they enjoy it. The considerations of the literary critic are, by and large, irrelevant to this enquiry simply by virtue of the fact that the literary critic dismisses 90% of readers and 90% of writers as external to his own interests. Because literary critics denounce all literature save the favoured 10% in a derisive (and often ill-mannered) fashion, some literary critics have assumed that because I am interested in the remaining 90% I must be aggressively attacking the favoured ten. Let me assure them that this is not so.
I don't share the hostility toward "literary critics" (a straw-man argument, methinks, though perhaps less so then than now) or even aesthetic criticism that Stableford shows here -- and I wouldn't be surprised if he himself would today, more than thirty years later, say things differently (a person really should not be held accountable to the views expressed thirty years ago in a letter to a fanzine!). What I like about what he says here, though, is the distinction between literary criticism and literary sociology. I don't know that they always have to be separate worlds, or that the two techiques cannot talk to each other productively, but I find it a helpful way to separate my own tendencies and desires as a reader and writer.

Even the Old Ones Say "Alright!"

I kill hamsters!*

I want to see them die!!!

I'm even bringing my (extended) family into this!
Say it one more time: ALRIGHT!!!

*Yes, John says God only pokes hamsters in the rear end when we use "alright", but here he is not being entirely forthright with us. "A poke from God" is a well-known phrase used by certain secret societies and cabals to indicate a particularly painful form of torture that leads to death. Just ask somebody at the Creation Museum. They know about pokes from God.

Call for Stories: Interfictions 2

Chris Barzak has just posted the announcement that he will be joining Delia Sherman in editing Interfictions 2, which picks up where Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing left off.

My story "A Map of the Everywhere" appeared in that first book, but I hope you won't hold that against the editors. I wrote the story partly to see if I could figure out any way of thinking about the idea of "interstitial fiction", and my approach was simply to try to cross and recross as many different sorts of boundaries as I could think of for the story. I used the label in the way I think labels should be used: as a temporary provocation allowing me to create something. That provocation has now returned in the form of a new anthology, and I hope lots of different writers will let the nebulous, amorphous idea of interstitiality push them to create something strange and wondrous, and that they will then submit that strange wondrousness to Chris and Delia for consideration for the new book.

10 April 2008

Alright Already!

Loath as I am to disagree with John Scalzi, I must note a difference of opinion with regard to the word "alright", which John proclaims is not even a word. And he thinks it's ugly.

Whether it is ugly is a matter of taste, and I shan't argue that. Whether it is a word, though ... well, it's definitely a word, since it has boundaries and is used to convey meaning, though I will grant that most American dictionaries of English do not accept it as part of formal, standard English yet.

I will also say here that I use the word "alright" much more often than I use the words "all right", and when an occasional copyeditor changes my alrights to all rights, I change 'em right back whenever possible. (Usually my sometimes-British/ sometimes-American punctuation distracts copyeditors from my other idiosyncracies, but not always.)

In terms of grammar, usage, style, orthography, etc., I am a radical liberal. I teach my students standard English, but also encourage them to make innovations whenever possible. I tell them they must learn standard English not because it is inherently better than anything else, but because pedants will yap at them, and they need to be able to defend their choices. Few things make people more pedantic than grammar, style, and usage, and most of the yaps of pedants are nothing more than pet peeves. We're all welcome to our pet peeves, and I certainly have some ("loathe" for "loath" annoys me, as does "disinterested" for "uninterested" -- the latter I can justify as a useful distinction, though), but I try to let my desire for a lively and vivid language overcome my occasional desire to battle the barbarians. And I have little problem with people deviating from standard English by choice. I wish more people did so, in fact.

Thus, I am stating here and now, in a public forum, that when I use "alright" I mean "alright" and not "all right". Sometimes, in fact, I use both, because I like the distinction that can be made between them, as pointed out by a commenter at this post who says:
The prosodic pattern of the two differs. In alright they are written as one word because they are articulated as one word, initial stress on ‘all’ while ‘right’ is unstressed. In all right the ‘right’ element gets stressed instead as it is the head of the constituent -- an adjective phrase, with ‘all’ as its specifier.
(I first decided to use both forms when I was writing plays, because I hear the two quite differently, and I wanted actors to be able to make a distinction.)

And here's a quote I'm stealing outright from this excellent overview of the controversy -- the quote comes from The Cambridge Guide to English Usage:
The spelling alright is controversial for emotional rather than linguistic or logical reasons. It was condemned by Fowler in a 1924 tract for the Society for Pure English, despite recognition in the Oxford Dictionary (1884-1298) as increasingly current. But the fury rather than the facts of usage seem to have prevailed with most usage commentators since. [...] Dictionaries which simply crossreference alright to all right (as the “proper” form) typically underrepresent its various shades of meaning as a discourse symbol. It may be concessive, as in Alright, I’ll come with you—or diffident, as in How’re things? Oh alright—or impatient as in Alright, alright!. None of these senses are helpfully written as all right, which injects the distracting sense of “all correct.” Those who would do away with alright prefer to ignore its various analogues, such as almost, already, also, although, altogether, always, which have all over the centuries merged into single words. Objections to alright are rarely justified, as Webster’s English Usage (1989) notes, and Burchfield (1996) only makes a shibboleth of it. [...] At the turn of the millennium, alright is there to be used without any second thoughts.
I'm a devoted reader of The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, and the entry for alright, all right takes up nearly two double-columned pages. Here are some tidbits: the first OED citation of the word in a context that seems similar to current use is Chaucer's "Criseyde was this lady name al right". Moving beyond Middle English we have a long gap where any form of the word(s) is unrecorded with its current sense until Percy Shelley in 1822 (where it is "That was all right, my friend"). "Alright" doesn't appear until 1893 (in the Durham University Journal). The Dictionary notes:
Alright did not appear in a Merriam-Webster dictionary until 1934, but several dictionary users had spotted its omission earlier and had written to us to urge its inclusion.
They cite a letter from "a New York businessman named William E. Scott" from September 25, 1913:
I wish you would submit to your experts the feasibility of putting the word alright into use. As a matter of fact it is used quite extensively without the authority of dictionaries because it is the quick common-sense way of doing. The cable and telegraph companies are the ones who profit by the lack of an authoritative ruling that alright is synonymous with all right
The Dictionary points out the argument for the different emphasis when speaking "alright" and "all right" and notes that that may explain why, when it is found in books, it is most often found in printed dialogue. Finally, they note that it seems to be more accepted by the British than the Yanks -- it is, they note, "the standard spelling in Punch, and the King's Printer at Ottawa officially sanctioned its use as far back as 1928. The OED Supplement calls it simply 'a frequent spelling of all right" They conclude: "It is clearly standard in general prose, but is widely condemned nonetheless by writers on usage."

Finally, two writers I don't mind having as predecessors:
...however alright well seen then let him go to her...
--James Joyce, Ulysses, 1922

A success, a success is alright when there are there rooms and no vacancies, a success is alright when there is a package, success is alright anyway and any curtain is wholesale.
--Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons, 1914

08 April 2008

Libraries of the Dead!

I haven't used LibraryThing because I know if I started I would become obsessive and not stop, which means I'd spend all my waking hours cataloguing my books. So I never knew about some of the fun to be had with LibraryThing until I saw this great linkdump from Free Range Librarian with a link to ... are you ready......


which is a group pulling together information on the personal libraries (some in progress, some complete) of various famous dead people. For instance: James Joyce, Karen Blixen, Danilo Kis, Sylvia Plath, Walker Percy, Ezra Pound, Robert E. Howard, and Tupac Shakur.

Alas, no Borges. Yet.

07 April 2008

And the Next Guest Editor of BAF Is...

I'm pleased to announce that the guest editor for Best American Fantasy 3 will be Kevin Brockmeier. The book will be filled with stories from this year (2008) and will be published in September 2009.
For the full, official press release (with a rare quote from series editor Matthew Cheney himself!), check out the BAF blog. For information on guidelines and publicity, see the BAF website.

I'm really thrilled Kevin agreed to join our endeavor -- I can't imagine a person who would be more perfect to take over. I'm also thrilled that I was able to convince Ann and Jeff to stay on and help with some publicity and packaging, because there's a lot I still don't know about putting books together, and their experience and knowledge and patience have been essential to the series.

If you don't know Kevin Brockmeier's work ... well, didn't you read his marvelous "Fable with Slips of White Paper Spilling from the Pockets" in the first BAF? (If not, it's online here.) Aside from being world-famous for being in the monumental first volume of BAF, Kevin has also written the simply perfect story "The Brief History of the Dead", which he later expanded into a novel. And he wrote the devastating novel The Truth About Celia, which is the work of his I first read -- I happened to tell Kelly Link that I'd heard good things about it, but never read it, and she went and grabbed a copy off a shelf at home, thrust it into my hands, and said, "You must. Now." I did, and she was right.

Kevin's stories have been collected in Things that Fall from the Sky and his new book, The View from the Seventh Layer. If you haven't read any of the tales therein, you're in for a real treat.

We're still selecting the contents for Best American Fantasy 2 right now, and it's due to be released in September. I'll have more information soon about the cover artist for that book, who is, I think, a wonderful discovery, and once we settle on the contents and get the permissions, I'll make the selections and the suggested reading list public, too.

Meanwhile, here are some Kevin Brockmeier links...

06 April 2008

How the Dead Dream by Lydia Millet

I've tried to write about Lydia Millet's new novel, How the Dead Dream, a few times now, but I've never been able to get too far. It is one of those books that, for me at least, is so entirely what it is that writing about it feels inadequate, because I can provide little more than summary or illustration, and if that is all there is, then I might as well keep this short and say no more than I liked this book. But I'm going to risk saying a bit more than that.

As anyone on whom I foisted it knows, Millet's previous novel, Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, was one of my favorites of recent years. I had no trouble saying lots about that book; if anything, I had trouble shutting up. How the Dead Dream is an entirely different sort of book, though. It is less vast, less epic: the novelistic equivalent of a lyric poem or a cello suite.

What amazes me about How the Dead Dream is that it is a determinedly political book and yet not a particularly didactic one. (I say "particularly" because a few moments seemed heavy-handed to me; I suspect every reader's tolerance level is different.) Or, rather, it is a sometimes-didactic novel but not an insistently-didactic novel, a novel that does want us to think about such things as the extinction of species and the moralities of capitalism and the relationships between humans and animals, but that does not insist we come up with action plans. It is more elegy than agit-prop.

Much of what makes the book effective both as a novel and an outcry is its language, the particular turns that the sentences take, and the mix of humor and pathos. There are elements of satire and caricature within Millet's portrait of T., a real estate developer and ultra-capitalist who in childhood was so obsessed with money that he sometimes filled his mouth with coins, but the satire and caricature here are more focused and less baroque than in Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, which is appropriate to the new novel's scale. Even when the satire is at its height, it is not alienating -- T. remains quite sympathetic, a lost soul rather than a Randian ubermensch, and the clang of the absurd is tempered with mournful grace notes.

The shape of the sentences is what kept me reading How the Dead Dream with real pleasure. Their rhythms and pacing are exquisite (a fact made all the clearer when I heard Lydia read the opening scenes at her McNally Robinson appearance last month), and they move along briskly, but richly, the words precisely crafted:
And it became clear to him that his early mentors -- the founders, the dead sages of the judiciary -- did not have modern counterparts in government. The great roofs that had sheltered them were raised now not over heads of state but over the motile geniuses of corporate novelty; these men now wore the mantles formerly worn by the fathers of the nation-state. They held up economies and reshaped them at will. After the robber barons had come the technophile visionaries, the practical philosophers of earning, and they, not the government men, were the new kingmakers.

He read their bestsellers.
In the second half of the novel, after various calamities devalue the bits of meaning his life has accrued, T. starts visiting zoos. Then he breaks into the cages at night and climbs in with the rarest of the animals and goes to sleep. He doesn't entirely understand why, but this is his only source of solace. Later, once he has move away from civilization altogether, he begins to understand that he finds comfort with animals and in wild nature because they allow him to think of something other than himself:
He had left the settlements now, all the old geographies. For so many years they had been the only thing; you did what you did and whatever it was consumed you, as though your actions were the heart of experience. As though without a series of actions there would be no story of your life.

Those who loved stories also loved the human, to live in cities where there was nothing but men and their actions as far as the eye could see. Once it had been believed that the sun revolved around the earth; now this was ridiculed as myopic, yet almost the same belief persisted. The sun might be the center of the planets and then the sun might be only one star among galaxies of them: but when it came to meaning, when it came to being, in fact, all the constellations still revolved around men.

He had been drawn to cities, had considered no alternatives -- cities and buildings, buildings and institutions. The lights across the continent. But what if, from his childhood on, he had imagined not the lights but the spaces between them? He would do so now, to make up for all the years behind him.
I'm quoting some of the most openly philosophical passages in the book, passages that occur in its final pages, when T. has emerged from various crises only to enter a fully metaphysical one, and so I am risking giving a false impression of the whole -- this is a book rich with incident, a book that covers a lot of ground in a relatively short space. The ending fascinates me, though, partly because I didn't know what to make of it on a first reading: it felt unresolved, even hasty, and yet somehow also transcendant. I read it a few more times and decided it was not hasty at all, and that impression had been created in my mind purely from my own expectations of a more traditional sort of knot-tying at the end. The last paragraphs, in fact, gained power on rereading, because when I first read them their emotional effect was blunted by my expectation of something else. Keep your mind open, don't expect a familiar template, and the effect of the final pages will be a powerful one. I suppose the same could be said for the whole book. Part satire, part meditation, part fugue, part exhortation ... read How the Dead Dream not as a "novel" but as a thing of its own, and you are likely to find much to give you pleasure and thought.