28 February 2008

Nicholson Baker on Wikipedia

I'm currently reading Nicholson Baker's forthcoming book Human Smoke (excellent so far, but I've really only just begun it), so it was with particular interest that I took a glance at his new essay, "The Charms of Wikipedia", in The New York Review of Books. I intended to set it aside for later reading, but it was quite engaging, and I'm a big fan of Wikipedia, so before long I found myself completely engrossed. And often laughing:
This is a reference book that can suddenly go nasty on you. Who knows whether, when you look up Harvard's one-time warrior-president, James Bryant Conant, you're going to get a bland, evenhanded article about him, or whether the whole page will read (as it did for seventeen minutes on April 26, 2006): "HES A BIG STUPID HEAD." James Conant was, after all, in some important ways, a big stupid head. He was studiously anti-Semitic, a strong believer in wonder-weapons—a man who was quite as happy figuring out new ways to kill people as he was administering a great university. Without the kooks and the insulters and the spray-can taggers, Wikipedia would just be the most useful encyclopedia ever made. Instead it's a fast-paced game of paintball.

Not only does Wikipedia need its vandals—up to a point—the vandals need an orderly Wikipedia, too. Without order, their culture-jamming lacks a context. If Wikipedia were rendered entirely chaotic and obscene, there would be no joy in, for example, replacing some of the article on Archimedes with this:
Archimedes is dead.

He died.

Other people will also die.

All hail chickens.

The Power Rangers say "Hi"

The End.
Even the interesting article on culture jamming has been hit a few times: "Culture jamming," it said in May 2007, "is the act of jamming tons of cultures into 1 extremely hot room."

25 February 2008

A Brief Hello

Life has been busy with the grading of piles of student papers and tests that I unwisely let build up (in ten years of teaching, you'd think I'd know better...) and work on a short story that I promised a certain anthology's editor I would have done by March (and yet it keeps wanting more and different words!), and so I haven't had much to write here. I did get some reading some done this weekend, finishing Lydia Millet's marvelous new novel, How the Dead Dream, which I'll be reviewing for somebody or other eventually. (Briefly: In some ways it's about capitalism and extinction, but it's more an affecting character study, though it's also a laugh-out-loud funny satire, yet really by the end it's a lyrical and heartbreaking look at-- Well, you'll just have to read it. And if you're in the NYC area, stop by the McNally Robinson bookstore on Weds, March 5 for a reading.)

All of which is just me popping up here to say, Nope, still don't really have anything to say. Will you accept a photograph instead?

(That's a picture of a pot made by Hideaki Miyamura and owned by my friends Rick and Beth Elkin. I took the picture on a brief recent trip to visit them in New Mexico -- the morning sun on the glaze was mesmerizing.)

23 February 2008

Some Harmless Fun

It's the time of year for me to be utterly torn -- torn by my knowledge that the Oscars are a ridiculous ritual and by my fascination with them. They are, as somebody (I don't remember who) once said, the Superbowl for gay people, and I have often dreamed of tailgating the ceremony whilst wearing my pink feather boa. (Or maybe Tayari Jones's coat. Except I think I somehow look like Rudy Giuliani in that picture.) And yet I also agree with a lot of what A.O. Scott said about them: "The Oscars themselves may be harmless fun, but the idea that they matter is as dangerous as it is ridiculous."

So I'm going to give up on matter for the moment, and instead indulge in harmless fun by offering unsolicited and utterly useless opinions on films I have seen and not seen. (Do note, though, that last year I lost on Oscar betting to Ms. McCarron.)

Here we go, with the help of the official list:

Actor: Consensus seems to be that Daniel Day-Lewis will win, and that seems deserved to me. Some people have carped that his acting was showy or external or something like that, but such criticisms seem to me to come from a limited view of what acting is and can be, the sort of view that privileges the most Method of Method Acting (bleccch) over everything else. Day-Lewis's performance made me think of Meyerhold's biomechanics and of some of Grotowski's ideas about acting. My other favorite male performance of the year was not nominated: Tony Leung Chiu Wai in Lust, Caution, a performance that is brilliant in exactly the opposite way that Day-Lewis's is: its power comes from Leung's restraint, from how much he is able to convey with a glance, from how masterfully he uses stillness and silence, and how stunning it is when he breaks the stillness and silence. I thought the movie itself fell flat, but his performance was entrancing.

Supporting Actor: I'm rooting for Hal Holbrook or Casey Affleck here. I didn't much like Into the Wild, but Holbrook did a lot with the little he was given. It's strange that Casey Affleck, who is pretty much the protagonist of Jesse James, was put forth in the supporting category, but that's probably how they thought he had the best shot to be noticed, given the number of attention-getting lead roles there were this year. He deserves the award for making an otherwise vapid movie at least somewhat interesting and for his flawlessly focused performance.

Actress: Of these films, I've only seen Away from Her, and Julie Christie, was, indeed, marvelous in a role that could easily have been sentimental. That it was not is a testament to Christie's performance, as well as the writing and editing of the film.

Supporting Actress: I want Cate Blanchett to win just because I'm annoyed that my favorite film of the year, I'm Not There, didn't get more nominations. Stupid Academy people! Bah!

Animated Feature: I only saw Persepolis, but I liked it quite a bit -- the animation was engaging from beginning to end, and the wonder of it, I thought, was that it made every frame of the film feel like a blank page, a place where any sort of movement might happen. That's the virtue of animation in general, but I've rarely encountered animated films that so vividly exploit this virtue.

Art Direction: Hmmm. I find this category completely uninspiring. I want to be excited at the idea of Sweeney Todd winning (will it? I don't know), but in retrospect, there's something too monotone to that movie's art direction for my taste -- I wanted it to be somehow both livelier and grittier. Or maybe I just think Across the Universe deserved to be here and I'm bitter. Yes, that's probably it. Stupid Academy people! Bah!

Cinematography: In some way or another, all of these films deserve to win (well, I haven't seen Atonement yet, but I'm feeling generous). My last choice would probably be Jesse James, because it felt too pleased with its own cinematography to me, and self-satisfaction annoys me. Which could just be a product of my own self-satisfaction. Still, it was a better movie visually than most of what was out there. I liked other aspects of No Country for Old Men better than the cinematography, but it was certainly excellent. There Will Be Blood would probably be my second choice in this category, because there was something organic and messy about the photography and lighting, and in the couple of moments when I wasn't thinking about how much I liked Daniel Day-Lewis's performance, I was thinking about the cinematography. But my choice for winner would be Diving Bell and the Butterfly, because I think cinematography is the film's greatest strength. There was a lot I didn't like about the movie after the first half hour, but cinematographically it's a masterpiece. The most deserving movie I know of for this category, though, isn't here: Zodiac. (See this American Cinematographer article for an explanation of some of what went into filming Zodiac.)

Costume Design: Across the Universe! Yay! If anything else wins, I will go to Fifth Avenue and burn all my boas in the street!

Directing: No Country stands out for me here, more so than in any other category, really. There Will Be Blood is just too much of a mess in its second half for me to find it deserving of this award, even though I generally found the mess fascinating. Anderson's great movie is still to come. No Country displayed some gutsy directorial choices, and felt to me like a summation and apotheosis of so many of the Coens's obsessions and proclivities that it stands out here for me.

Documentaries: I didn't see any of the nominated documentary features or shorts. I didn't get excited by documentaries in 2007 because, whether justifiably or not, I felt that most were the sorts of things you only needed to read a summary of and look at the poster for to know most of what you'd get from them. I'm prejudiced against documentaries in general, though, because for most subjects, I'd rather just read a book.

Editing: I kind of want Bourne Ultimatum to win here, even though it was my least favorite of the Bourne movies -- the editing kept the movie moving at such a pace that it was occasionally difficult to realize how limp the thing was at its core, and this, in its own weird way, is a triumph. No Country may deserve the award, too, because the Coens (pseudonymously) did their own editing; in some ways, though, I think of it as being an extension of their directing, which I've already said is the award I think they most deserve. The editing category is another one where I miss the presence of Zodiac -- I don't know if it's the movie I would have chosen for a winner, but it certainly belongs in this company.

Foreign Language Film: The absence of Four Months, Three Weeks, and Two Days here is so glaring that I have trouble taking this category seriously, which is a shame, because last year I thought the Foreign Language category was the strongest one in the lineup.

Makeup and Music: Not categories I have any opinion about, amazingly enough. Except I think there should be more music about makeup.

Best Picture: I'm Not There. And it's not.

Short Films: I have a weird prejudice against short films, a complete resistance to them.

Sound Editing: No Country is a good choice here, because it does what few American films do: eschews music. Well-placed music can be wonderful in a movie, of course, but I do wish American movies weren't so beholden to it. That No Country created as powerful an atmosphere and mood as it did is in no small part the result of the sound editing, and so it deserves, methinks, notice.

Sound Mixing: I am generally unqualified to judge all of the categories for the Oscar, but in this one I am particularly unqualified, knowing nothing whatsoever about sound mixing. If you're in desperate need of my opinion here (in which case you are desperate in ways I don't even want to imagine), then here it is: Sound mixing? I am in favor of it.

Visual Effects: Didn't see the films.

Writing (Adapted Screenplay): I think Away from Her deserves this one, though No Country will probably win. There were a number of things that made Away from Her as effective as it was, but the element that most impressed me was the writing -- Sarah Polley's script (PDF), based on Alice Munro's "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" is masterfully understated -- what could have easily been a disease-of-the-week weepie became so much more through the intelligent and restrained construction of scenes.

Writing (Original Screenplay): This is a strange collection, and not a particularly strong one. (I'm Not There deserved this award, too.) The only worthwhile thing about Lars and the Real Girl is that it contains a sex doll as a main character and yet could have received a G rating. Otherwise, it's just about as insipid as the average Hallmark Hall of Fame movie.

Whew! That's enough bloviating for me for quite some time!

18 February 2008

Alex Cox on Walker

Richard Nash at Soft Skull saw my mention of Alex Cox's movie Walker and sent on a brief passage from Cox's upcoming book X-Films: True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker, which Soft Skull/Counterpoint will be bringing out in a few months. Thanks to Richard for giving me permission to share this:
Walker is my best, my most expensive, and my least-seen film. It’s the bio-pic of William Walker -- an American mercenary who had himself made president of Nicaragua in the mid-19th century. In the US, Walker was an anti-slavery liberal; in Nicaragua he instituted slavery. He’s almost unknown in the US today, but in the 1850’s Walker was fantastically popular. The newspapers wrote more about him than they did about Presidents Pierce or Buchanan.

All the characters in the film existed, though they aren’t all accurate portraits, and there’s no evidence -- say -- that Walker and his financier, Vanderbilt, ever met. Most of what happens in the film is part of some historical record; but it’s a drama, and the bricks of truth are mortared with fiction.

I first went to Nicaragua in 1984, with Peter McCarthy -- on one of those leftist tours where you meet nuns and trade unionists and representatives of cooperatives. It was the week of the presidential election, which the FSLN -- the Sandinistas -- won. We were impressed by the revolution, by the beauty of the countryside, by the changes and the optimism in the air. In Leon, on election day, two young Sandinistas egged us on to bring a big, Hollywood movie to Nicaragua, which would communicate something about Nicaragua to the Americans, and spend dollars there.

Fair enough. Nicaragua was a poor country, under continuous terrorist attack. The Sandinistas were their elected representatives, who’d led the overthrow of the dictator, Somoza, in 1979. Not that this meant much in Hollywood. To get serious money for a Sandinista feature, it would need an American protagonist. Step forward, William Walker.
For another excerpt, see Richard's own post about acquiring the book.

Today's Must-Read

Kassia Kroszer on writing, publishing, publicity, the internets, and the future:
I am not worried about the future of the book. I am not worried about the future of reading. I am not worried about the future of spelling (I am almost-but-not-quite ready to accept the “spelling is relative” argument, !@#$ British and their extraneous use of “U”). I am worried about the future of publishers.

By publishers, I mean traditional, bound-copy based, royalty-paying publishers. Oh, I don’t think they’re going away for a good long time, but I do think we’re seeing the beginning of a serious challenge to the status quo. This means a slow (publishing being a very slooow business) shift from authors who are grateful for any crumbs thrown their way to authors who will ask “So tell me again, what can you do for me?”.
The rest of the post is full of ideas, hypotheses, and possibilities. It's also worth comparing it to this Galleycat post about Tim O'Reilly's presentation at the Tools of Change conference, where O'Reilly discussed the difficulties of giving content away for free.

17 February 2008

Stray Bits

I have finally made my way through the 3,000 emails that had accumulated in the mumpsimus at gmail account during my absence from checking it. Thank you to everyone for bearing with me on that. If you need a response of some sort to something, and I haven't yet replied, please send me another note, because I think I have responded to everything that seemed to need a response.

There are some sites and items I discovered from the mail, including:
  • The First Book, a site created by Scott William Carter to provide interviews with and information about authors of first novels. Scott was my roommate at the very first science fiction convention I went to, and he's not only a tremendous nice guy, but has developed a great career with lots of short stories published in a wide variety of markets and now a novel that is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster in 2010.

  • Noticing my comments on Cormac McCarthy's The Road, Henry Farrell let me know about a conversation with China Miéville about The Road that he had a year ago. I completely missed this when it was first posted (probably because I'd just gotten back from Kenya), and regret that, because it's very much worth reading.

  • Starship Sofa is a science fiction podcast with a great selection of material -- right now there's a podcast (mp3) about the life and career of the much-too-neglected John Sladek, and past shows have included readings of stories by Pat Murphy, Bruce Sterling, David Brin, and others.

  • This isn't from the mail, but I'll add it here anyway: A thoughtful review of the soon-to-be-released Criterion Collection DVD of Alex Cox's Walker. This is an extraordinary movie, and I'm looking forward to seeing the DVD very much, because I've only ever watched it on an old videotape I got a few years ago, and the image quality on the tape is awful. I first got interested in Walker after I returned from a trip to Nicaragua and started reading up on Central American history -- and one of the stories that most captured my attention was that of William Walker, who took a ragged band of ruffians down to Nicaragua and declared himself president. Cox turned the story into a bizarre movie, and when I first watched it my reaction was basically, "Huh?" But a second viewing endeared the movie to me, and Ed Harris's performance as Walker is extraordinary -- he's one of the best actors out there, but seldom gets a chance to really show what he can do to the extent he got with Walker. The film is a political satire, an over-the-top historical epic, a chaotic mix of anomalies and goofiness, a sad and affecting tale of American capitalism and imperialism. Other films were made in '80s about Nicaragua -- Under Fire and Latino come to mind -- but Walker has more depth and nuance (even amidst its blustery weirdness) than its more straightforward and painfully earnest cousins, and it has withstood the passing of time all the better for it.

16 February 2008

4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days


I went into 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days with the highest of expectations, given how much extraordinary praise the film has received from most critics. During the first twenty minutes or so, I wasn't sure I would make it through the entire movie -- it was, I thought, similar in style to a kind of movie I find unbearable: a style based on long handheld shots, a soundtrack that contains little or no music and lots of environmental sounds (characters breathing, eating, walking), and a general attitude that seems to fetishize "artlessness", though offers little to replace the art it so disdains. (Many films these days indulge such a style, or come close to it, but the two that have caused me the most tedium and pain are Keane and Day Night Day Night.)

And then 4 Months grabbed my attention and didn't let go until the final frame. It may have been that I was simply unprepared to give the film the sort of attention it deserved until then, or -- more likely -- that the early scenes performed a kind of prestidigation, lulling me into the semi-conscious state I needed to descend to so that I could then be jolted awake. Though the style of the film did not change (and its style is one of its triumphs), 4 Months grew to be one of the most suspenseful and unsettling movies I have seen in a very long time.

The story concerns a pair of Romanian women in the late 1980s, Gabita and Otilia, who are college roommates. Gabita seeks to get an abortion, an illegal procedure, and the less naive, more streetsmart Otilia helps her get a hotel room and meet the abortionist. The plot is a simple one, with few complications, but it is the presentation that matters. The film unfolds almost in real-time. We learn very little about the characters' lives or backgrounds. There is no speechmaking about life or politics. The situation is what it is, and people deal with it as well as they can. In this world, everything is excruciating -- the effects of a totalitarian bureaucracy seep into every interaction, poverty digs distrust into every glance, and desperation rules every detail.

Director Cristian Mungiu trusts his story so completely that the film never feels in danger of explaining itself, never seems to insult our intelligence as viewers, never threatens to connect stray and ancillary dots. It is a movie of implications, silences, impossible choices, great unknowns. Because of this -- not in spite of it -- 4 Months possesses a rare tension. Though the first twenty minutes or so felt interminably long to me, everything after that seemed to zoom by, and each minute added more dread to the almost-unbearable mix.

The filming is particularly extraordinary as well, because Oleg Mutu's cinematography seems at first flat, wan, washed out, dull. On reflection, though, it is a masterpiece of unity, a wonder built from an extremely limited palette. The night scenes are particularly effective, a stunning mix of careful photography and admirably restrained and thoughtful editing. Every choice, from sound to image to editing to acting, contributes to the intensity of the film's effect.

After leaving the theatre, I said to my companions that I liked the movie -- much as one can "like" a film that is such an eviscerating experience -- but that I didn't think it was as revelatory as the hype had led me to hope for. A few hours later, though, and the movie remains so vivid in my mind that I think my initial reaction was one conditioned by bad habits and impatience. 4 Months is not the sort of movie to lead to bang-pow epiphanies upon exiting the theatre. Instead, it digs in and lets its riches reveal themselves upon reflection. The tension carries us through the narrative, but the immense artfulness of the entirety blooms best in memory.

A Night Out

I hadn't been out to the theatre in a while, but the marvelous Liz G. had a spare ticket to Next to Normal at Second Stage Theatre, and so I took her up on her offer of a night out. I doubted I would care much for the play, but it's been a few months since I've seen a live stage production, and my addiction is deep enough that I was in severe withdrawal.

My problem when I see new plays is that I tend to blame all faults on the script. I first noticed this back in college when I was reviewing for NYU's Washington Square News, every new (and generally painfully awful) play seemed to me to suffer from atrociously cliched and/or banal and/or pretentious and/or halfbaked and/or insipid scripts. In a city where so many actors, designers, and directors go perpetually unemployed, it was rare to see a show that was particularly badly acted, directed, or designed. Or it may be that my own focus on playwrighting caused and causes me to locate faults in the area I know best.

In any case, once again, I thought most of the problems with the show were at the basic level of the script (well, libretto, lyrics, and music in this case). The actors didn't seem quite warmed up in the first ten minutes or so, but once they found their footing, they performed with real precision and intensity, which is what made the play bearable for me -- much as I liked the idea of a musical about a manic-depressive woman and her family, the story was so predictable and uninspired, so sentimental and cloyingly movie-of-the-week in its development that it's a wonder I found the experience of watching it basically painless and occasionally pleasurable. While certainly some of the pleasure did come from scripted moments -- if he can repress his schmaltzy tendencies, Brian Yorkey has the potential to be an extraordinary lyricist, since a few of the songs have clever and affecting lines -- most came from the sheer energy of the actors, all of whom throw themselves into the material with more gusto than it deserves.

The last play I saw directed by Michael Greif was Rent, a show I basically loathe (for many reasons), though the slickness of direction that bothered me so much with Rent works better here, with a story of upper-middle-class anxiety. The set is the sort of scaffolding thing that was new and interesting in the '60s, but it works well enough here, and is served particularly well by Kevin Adams's lighting. The costume design is contemporary, of course, and the characters go through an awful lot of outfits -- the actor in me was cringing at the amount of quick-changes.

As we were talking about the show, Liz and I started wondering about the audiences that producers of new musicals must be trying to reach. It's nice to see a musical where the characters sing lines with the sort of profanity that everybody uses casually these days, but it's strange that the music sounds like it was written in the late '70s -- really, many of the songs could easily pass themselves off as trunk tunes from Neil Diamond or Anne Murray. Meanwhile, the story is one that is probably dear to the hearts of suburbanites: family dysfunction, lots of pills, kids who are over-pressured to get into Yale and so end up doing lots of pills themselves, etc. From a producer's standpoint, it makes a lot of sense to put such a show on the boards, because the audience that is going to pay $80 for a ticket to a play in NY is the kind of audience that is likely to have good memories of Neil Diamond and Anne Murray songs and is worried about all the prescriptions in the medicine cabinet. Indeed, the audience at Next to Normal seemed to truly love the show, and quite a few people gave it a standing ovation. (I don't say this as a criticism, merely an observation. Some of my best friends have fond memories of Neil Diamond and Anne Murray songs and have way too many prescriptions in their medicine cabinets. They, too, deserve musicals.)

The sad effect of all this on the American theatre is that it makes something like Threepenny Opera, a play that will reach the 80th anniversary of its premiere this summer, seem breathtakingly radical still.

But it was good to get out to the theatre again, something I need to do more often. (I'm sad that Soho Rep's production of Sarah Kane's Blasted has been postponed to October -- I had been looking forward to seeing it this spring.)

Liz brought me goodies, too, which made me tremendously happy, including the manuscript of a new novel by a writer whose first book excited me quite a bit and copies of The SFWA European Hall of Fame and the late, great Avram Davidson's Adventures in Unhistory: Conjectures on the Factual Foundations of Several Ancient Legends, a book that is an utter delight and belongs in every household. Really.

Now I must head off to more peregrinations and intemperate thoughts, some of which I am certain I shall share. Until then...

12 February 2008

Agent Lindsay

Colleen Lindsay, whom some of you may remember from this old post here at The Mumpsimus, has just announced that after many years as a publicist at various publishing houses she is now becoming an agent with FinePrint Literary Management. I know what a great representative she was for her authors when she was doing publicity for their finished books, so I expect she'll do a phenomenal job of representing authors as they place their manuscripts with publishers. She's got decades of experience in the book world, and this will serve all her clients well, I'm sure.

If any of you out there have finished manuscripts (including graphic novels) and are looking for representation, you might want to read Colleen's submission guidelines. And, as always, keep an eye on her blog, The Swivet, for news about the wonderful, wacky world of publishing.

10 February 2008

"Freedom from the Tyranny of What Is"

One of the best new essay collections I have read in a long time is Reginald Shepherd's Orpheus in the Bronx: Essays on Identity, Politics, and the Freedom of Poetry. I first encountered Shepherd some years back in an issue of Poets & Writers with an essay he wrote on Samuel Delany, though I didn't realize he had written it until I discovered it reprinted in Orpheus in the Bronx. I first noted Shepherd's name when I discovered his blog, which is consistently rich with thoughtful posts on poetry, writing, teaching, and living. (Shepherd has done some additional blogging the Poetry Foundation's Harriet blog, which has become a diverse and fascinating site of discussion about all sorts of different views of poetry. Some of Shepherd's recent posts have stirred up passionate, valuable discussion in their comments threads and elsewhere.)

I've just written and submitted a review of Orpheus in the Bronx, and will offer more details on that once I know its fate. I think this is a book with broad appeal, a book that should be read by writers and readers of all sorts, not just those who are particularly interested in poetry and its various factions and fascinations. To persuade you toward this idea, here's a tiny and more-or-less random selection from some of the many interesting passages in the book...

From the introduction:
History, politics, economics, authorial biography, all contribute to the matter of poetry and even condition its modes of being, but they don't determine its shape, its meaning, or its value. Similarly, it's not that a poet's social position and background don't matter and shouldn't be discussed -- they obviously condition (but do not wholly determine) who he or she is and what she or he writes -- but that they don't define the work or its aesthetic value. They should not be used to put the writer into a box or to expect him or her to write in a certain way or on certain topics, to obligate him or her to "represent" or speak for his or her social identity (as if anyone had only one, or even two or three).
From "The Other's Other: Against Identity Poetry, For Possibility":
I have never looked to literature merely to mirror myself back to me, to confirm my identity to myself or to others. I already have a self, even if one often at odds with itself, and if anything I have felt burdened, even trapped, by that self and its demands, by the demands made upon it by the world. Many minority writers have spoken of feeling invisible: I have always felt entirely too visible, the object of scrutiny, labeling, and categorization. Literature offered a way out of being a social problem or statistic, a way not to be what everyone had decided I was, not to be subject to what that meant about me and for me. But even if one has a more sanguine relation to selfhood, Picasso's admonition should always be kept in mind: art is called art because it is not life. Otherwise, why would art exist? Life already is, and hardly needs confirmation.
From "Shadows and Light Moving on Water: On Samuel R. Delany":
There is a convergence between the position of poetry and the position of science fiction in contemporary American culture. Both are highly marginal discourses. Poetry has a great deal of residual cultural cachet (as attested by its use as an all-purpose honorific: a good quarterback is "poetry in motion"), but few people read it (there are many times more would-be poets than readers of poetry); science fiction lacks prestige but is widely read (often somewhat abashedly, as if one shouldn't admit to such an adolescent habit).

At their best, science fiction and poetry have in common the production and presentation of alternative worlds in which the rules, restrictions, and categories of our world don't apply; it was this freedom from the tyranny of what is, the domination of the actually existing, that attracted me to both, first science fiction and then poetry.
From "Why I Write":
To attempt something new and fail is much more interesting than to attempt something that's already been done and fail. I don't want to write something just because I know I can, just to reaffirm what I already know. Of course, to say that I don't want to do the same thing twice is to assume that I've done something in the first place. I not only don't know what I can do, I don't know what I've done. How could one, not having access to the vantage point of posterity? With every poem I'm trying to do something that I can't achieve, to get somewhere I'll never get. If I were able to do it, if I were able to get there, I'd have no reason to continue writing.

Trunk Stories

I reviewed the first two issues of Trunk Stories for SF Site back in 2005, and so I am happy to see that William Smith is continuing with the venture -- not as a print zine, since costs have become prohibitive, but online. The first story, "Dame Morehead's Sea of Tranquility" by Tobias Seamon, is now available as a PDF download from Smith's Hang Fire Books blog.

09 February 2008

Help a Writer, Get a BAF

Caitlín R. Kiernan is a freelance writer without health insurance, and she has suffered some severe health problems recently that have not only added expenses to her life, but kept her from writing as much as she could. Jeff VanderMeer has already given away copies of his novel Shriek to some folks who were willing to make donations to Caitlín's fund, and I'm going to copy him and do what I can: I have three spare copies of Best American Fantasy, and I will happily send those to the first three people who request them on this thread at Caitlín's LiveJournal and then contribute to her health fund. Once she has confirmed the contributions, I'll put the books in the mail.

There are other ways of helping Caitlín (you could buy her books!), including an eBay auction. Keep your eyes on her LJ for updates and more info.

Reminder: Sunday Salon

I just wanted to remind folks who can get to Brooklyn on Sunday night about the Sunday Salon reading that includes Tony D'Souza, Tayari Jones, Frances Madeson, and, uh, me. Various disreputable people have told me they plan to be there, but you shouldn't let that stop you.

The reading will be at 7pm at the Stain Bar, 766 Grand Street, Brooklyn (take the L to Grand, walk 1 block west).

06 February 2008

The Scarecrow-in-the-Desert Effect

I have been trying to pinpoint what, exactly, I dislike about many contemporary fictions, a certain effect or technique. (Perhaps a lack of effect or technique.) What I dislike feels to be the same in each story or novel, at least in what it does in my brain, despite these stories and novels being from all different genres. Thus, it seems to be some sort of effect of the prose, a way the narrative is presented, an early roadblock on the path from the page to my brain. I have avoided trying to write about it, because I know I will fumble around as I attempt to describe and analyze the problem, but what's a blog for if not to work through ideas...

The provocation for this writing was a quick blip from Galleycat about an article in Wired ("Why Sci-Fi is the Last Bastion of Philosophical Writing"). In describing the article, Ron Hogan wrote, "So why doesn't the establishment take science fiction more seriously? Because, [Clive Thompson] observes, 'the genre tolerates execrable prose stylists.' (Like the literary establishment doesn't?)"

I've been growing dissatisfied with the word "style" recently, because often it seems like a catch-all, a way of pretending to point at something without really doing so. I could probably trace my discontent back at least to my post on "PKD and Style", where the limits of my ability to find the right words for what I was trying to describe are at their height.

Thus, to say "the genre tolerates execrable prose stylists" seems to me simultaneously obvious and unhelpful -- obvious, because my current dissatisfactions with many of the books I encounter could be caused by something that might be connected to this thing we call style; unhelpful, because "execrable prose style" is a judgment that relies so much on personal taste and sensibility that I don't, myself, find it of much use when trying to explain why some things hold my interest as a reader and other things don't.

I liked Ron's parenthetical addition, because I've had as much trouble reading books marketed as literary fiction as I have had reading books marketed as science fiction, as much trouble with stories in literary journals as stories in science fiction magazines. (Or nearly as much trouble -- I do think the effect I'm circumnavigating has less prevalence in the most self-consciously literary circles.)

I always first identify the effect as a kind of image: the prose feels open and thin, like a picture of a tattered scarecrow in a vast desert. It has less to do with the shape and structure of the sentences than the content of paragraphs. It's not that the paragraphs are too short or long -- they can be any length, although the effect most often presents itself in short paragraphs -- but that they don't contain enough of certain types of matter, or they contain too much of another. The matter they lack is sensual or intellectual -- the accumulated paragraphs feel like a wide-angle lens's view of everything -- and the matter that overfills them is unwelcome or unnecessary information. (This is how I know this problem is not one of "good writing", whatever that is, but rather of my own prejudices about what narrative fiction should do, or can do best. Intellectually, I try to stay as open as possible to all sorts of fiction, but really there are only certain types that give me real pleasure as a reader.)

Some of this began to come into focus for me when I read James Gibbons's review of Susan Choi's A Person of Interest in the latest Bookforum. Someone at Viking had sent me the novel, and I have a particular interest in stories about politics and extremism, so I decided to give it a shot. Ten pages in, I knew it was hopeless. Gibbons gets at why:
After Lee is questioned by two men from the FBI about possible links to the Chinese Communists, Choi writes:
Only one thing remained beyond doubt: Lee really had closed the door not just on native country and language and culture but on kin, all of them, said good-bye to all that and stepped over a threshold of ocean to never look back. There had never been a divided allegiance, a pang of nostalgia, not even a yen for the food, so that only months into his life in the States, when faced by two FBI agents in an American bus station, he could almost have laughed—not to be thought Chinese but anything whatsoever, apart from American.
There’s too much of this kind of intrusive analysis in A Person of Interest. Choi writes ploddingly, and at too great length, about her characters in the abstract; the effect is like reading an outline rather than a novel.
"[L]ike reading an outline rather than a novel" -- yes, that was part of it. For the next step in being able to identify the effect that is so common and causes me so much annoyance, I needed Alan DeNiro's review of The New Space Opera:
What’s more disappointing is that in almost no cases is this disassociation from emotion made part of the story (something, ironically, that literary realist stories are often decried for in some genre circles); as an unexamined baseline, the affectless life forms plod through adventures whose outcomes appear meaningless against the larger backdrop of thousands of worlds, hundreds of civilizations. As Ian Macdonald’s meandering narration in “Verthandi’s Ring” tells the reader, “war was just another game to entities hundreds of thousands of years old, for whom death was a sleep and a forgetting.” Again, this galactic void could be part of the observable texture of the narrative, picking up on how the enclosed space of a story -- much like the sealed hull of an interstellar spaceship -- can only contain so much prose.
The section of Macdonald's sentence quoted there is of the sort that, unless the context is very different from the usual context for such sentences, I most dislike -- such sentences create an almost physical reaction in me. First, there is the part about war being "just another game", which sounds like a cliche, a flatfooted attempt at world-weariness (though it could be something different in the actual story). More viscerally, though, what fails for me is the perspective. I think Alan's right that there is a problem of texture here, although I have no idea if he and I are thinking about texture in the same way -- to me, a story with creatures of such age and attitudes would likely only be effective if the attitudes were conveyed through implication -- if we were made to feel their age and disconnection from human-sized events, and if nothing were stated so baldly as Macdonald states it. It doesn't take too much of a leap for me to make Gibbons's criticism of Choi fit with DeNiro's criticism of Macdonald: here is another example of intrusive analysis, another example of what is, to me, plodding writing.

(It's interesting to me now to read my review of One Million A.D., where I said some similar things to what Alan is saying about The New Space Opera. I also tried there to get at some of what I'm trying to get at here. I'm not sure I'm getting any closer now.)

I'm tempted to say that the plodding comes from the prose not doing what I desire prose to do: offer me more to think about than just one thing, but I'm not entirely satisfied with saying that; it doesn't feel like it gets at the heart of what bothers me about such writing. It's true that the feeling I get from such writing is that my brain isn't being engaged enough, but it's also that the abstraction sends my readerly brain down paths it finds dull and vacant, that such writing creates an imaginative distance more appropriate to, as Gibbons says, an outline than a piece of narrative fiction.

To some extent, too, it's a matter of the right details. Consider, for instance, one of the few books I've read recently with complete pleasure: Cormac McCarthy's The Road. I went into the book with some skepticism -- it had garnered so much praise, I was ready to be disappointed. While I certainly don't think it's the most extraordinary novel of our time (what is?), I enjoyed reading it and found much of it moving and impressive. What particularly made it impressive to me was how McCarthy balanced action, description, and dialogue, and how he built a world through implication rather than through statement, something much science fiction aims for and only rarely achieves. Here's a randomly selected passage:
When day broke he pushed his way out of their den, the tarp heavy with snow. He stood and looked about. It had stopped snowing and the cedar trees lay about in hillocks of snow and broken limbs and a few standing trunks that stood stripped and burntlooking in that graying landscape. He trudged out through the drifts leaving the boy to sleep under the tree like some hibernating animal. The snow was almost to his knees. In the field the dead sedge was drifted nearly out of sight and the snow stood in razor kerfs atop the fencewires and the silence was breathless. He stood leaning on a post coughing. He'd little idea where the cart was and he thought that he was getting stupid and that his head wasnt working right. Concentrate, he said. You have to think. When he turned to go back the boy was calling him.
There are bits of diction (kerf, sedge) that make the passage different from the sorts of description other writers would create, but there's also much that is not extraordinary about it, much that feels artless in the sense of being straightforward, plain, flat. It's not an artless passage at all, though, because the plainness of much of the diction is countered by the complexity of the rhythms. A chain of monosyllabic words gets broken by polysyllabic words. The first sentence has sixteen words, the second five, the third thirty-one. The vowels echo off each other. Etc. So much of The Road is like this that the accumulative effect is immense, and part of the novel's emotional power comes from the shape of the prose in concert with the actions and events it describes -- McCarthy leaves much unsaid in the novel, much unexplained, and for a reader like me it is a more evocative and compelling book because of this.

Some of what I'm trying to say here could easily be summed up with the cliche command issued to aspiring writers: Show, don't tell. I'm not convinced that's exactly it, though. If my problem with so much contemporary fiction was that it tells more than shows, why, then, do I find Roberto Bolaño's work so captivating? A story like "The Insufferable Gaucho" should drive me nuts, but it doesn't. Or what about Borges? Or, to return to genre fiction, Cordwainer Smith, whose "Dead Lady of Clown Town" begins:
You already know the end—the immense drama of the Lord Jestocost, seventh of his line, and how the cat-girl C'mell initiated the vast conspiracy. But you do not know the beginning, how the first Lord Jestocost got his name, because of the terror and inspiration which his mother, Lady Goroke, obtained from the famous real-life drama of the dog-girl D'joan. It is even less likely that you know the other story—the one behind D'joan. This story is sometimes mentioned as the matter of the "nameless witch," which is absurd, because she really had a name. The name was "Elaine," an ancient and forbidden one.

Elaine was a mistake. Her birth, her life, her career were all mistakes. The ruby was wrong. How could that have happened?

Go back to An-fang, the Peace Square at An-fang, the Beginning Place at An-fang, where all things start. Bright it was. Red Square, dead square, clear square, under a yellow sun.

This was Earth Original, Manhome itself, where Earthport thrusts its way up through hurricane clouds that are higher than the mountains.
It's not about telling or showing, not about dramatizing or summarizing, but rather about what the prose is up to. Bolaño, Borges, and Smith all fill their sentences and paragraphs with stuff, but there is something about all the stuff they throw in that makes it feel, to me at least, like something other than filler -- purposeful, deliberate, specific, vivid. McCarthy's details become compelling through the rhythms they create, but so do Cordwainer's Smith's, though the details in the passage I quoted are told rather than shown -- but the telling is meaningless on a first read, since we don't know what most of the details refer to, and so we are left with their sounds and shapes, the ways they work together, the music they produce. It's a baroque and even ridiculous sort of music, and yet it works, I think, just as well as McCarthy's mostly plain, mostly ordinary sounds, because it is so very much a thing of its own, simultaneously an object and an effect.

The opposite of this is the scarecrow-in-the-desert effect, the sort of writing that makes me most impatient, the sort of writing I am least inclined -- least capable! -- of reading to the end. For some reason, it has felt to me that I have encountered it with growing frequency in science fiction short stories and novels; the reason I feel this way is probably that I have reached a personal point of saturation and my tolerance levels are particularly low, my sensitivity particularly high. The details in stories seem to be presented too clearly, too obviously, too much for their own sake and not the sake of any additional purpose. They are the details of outlines, details that plod. Statements of action divorced from any purpose except to state an action. Background information that should be made important through implication, not assertion. The perspective of the writer toward the material is an abstract one, distant for (apparently) no good reason. The tone is affectless not because it needs to be, but because it fell out that way -- or the writing is "lyrical" because that's what the writer seems to think "good writing" is.

In his much-discussed Introduction to Best American Short Stories 2007, Stephen King complained about reading lots of stories that felt "airless". My metaphor would be exactly the opposite -- too many of the stories and novels I read feel full of air. That's the desert the scarecrow is in. There's too much dead space between the sentences and paragraphs, not enough for my brain to feast on. I've read (well, tried to read) entire issues of magazines that feel this way: stories with vaguely interesting situations and characters, written by people with the ability to put together smooth sentences, and yet there's nothing else there, and the simple fact is, for me at least, smooth sentences and vaguely interesting situations and characters are simply not enough. (Why should they be?)

Do these notes even describe a single effect? I'm no longer sure. It's possible I'm not bringing myself any closer to understanding the scarecrow-in-the-desert effect so many books and stories have on me these days. I'm curious, though, if anything I've written here resonates with other readers, because by blindly groping toward a description of the effect, I hope not only to be able to better describe how certain pieces of writing affect me, but also to discover ways to avoid creating such writing myself. (Or at least, I'd like to discover more ways to try to avoid creating such writing. Any writer can make grand pronouncements, but it takes a particular mix of skill and luck to be able to live up to such pronouncements even rarely in a career. Failing better all the time...)

04 February 2008

Diary of a Bad Year by J.M. Coetzee

This is a book that will need to be reread. Until then, some notes.

Diary of a Bad Year is immediately impressive simply because it isn't incoherent. That may sound like faint praise, but in this case it is not, because J.M. Coetzee has decided to structure this novel as three voices speaking, mostly, at once. The first pages are split between a top section and a bottom section, with the top devoted to short essays about current events and the bottom devoted to the diary of the writer of those essays, a South African novelist known around his apartment building in Australia as "Señor C". On page 25, a third section is added to each page: the diary of a woman named Anya, who becomes the typist for the novelist's opinions.

Such a structure is a recipe for confusion, but it is a testament to Coetzee's skill that the novel is always readable and often compelling. We have the choice of sticking with one of the sections for as long as we want to keep flipping pages, or we can read the pages top to bottom, drifting between voices. I mostly did the latter, even when, as happens toward the middle of the book, the sections began to stray parts of their sentences across multiple pages, providing no convenient spot to pause.

In his insightful New Yorker review, James Wood says, "In truth, one reads the top section of each page with mounting excitement, and the bottom two sections rather dutifully," but my experience was exactly the opposite -- the "Strong Opinions" (as, a la Nabokov they will be called when translated and published in Germany) are interesting enough, but few of them are particularly incisive, and many are quite ephemeral, rushing through the current of the events they respond to. Which is, it seems to me, the point. Novelists are not inherently better opinionators than any other pundit or person. Señor C is writing outside his realm of greatest competence. The meaning of his essays lies not in what they say, but in how they fit into the story of Diary of a Bad Year, for which they are simultaneously the motivating material and the byproduct. It is not a novel of ideas so much as it is a novel depicting the inspiration and effect of ideas, their predictable limits and unpredictable force.

Coetzee is also once again playing with our desire to match writer to writings. He's done this from his very first book, Dusklands, and Foe and The Master of Petersburg fictionalized and riffed on the lives of Daniel DeFoe and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, respectively, to examine the connections between writers and texts, readers and what they read, the world and the book. Recently, Elizabeth Costello and Slow Man dared us to wonder even more about the connections between Coetzee, his characters, and their opinions. Diary of a Bad Year feels, in some ways, like a summing up of those two books, an attempt to discover a post-Elizabeth Costello world.

Diary of a Bad Year, though, is a much less frustrating book to read than many of its predecessors, and this is, in some ways, its weakness. Coetzee's least traditional books frustrate us by jumping out of the way of our genre and narrative expectations; his more straightforward books frustrate us with their moral complexity, their brutal details, their cold eye toward a world of everyday atrocities. Some of Coetzee's books frustrate us by appearing to be allegories and then refusing to be so; some frustrate by undermining our sense of history and reality in ways that can't be summed up in soundbytes; some frustrate by objectively presenting deeply flawed and even repulsive protagonists. It is a productive and exciting frustration, the sort of frustration the greatest literature provides -- an effect that cannot be summed up, but only pointed toward and experienced. For a reader not much interested in the stories Diary of a Bad Year has to tell, I expect the book is more numbing than frustrating; for a reader, like me, who finds it all quite interesting there is no frustration at all -- this is probably as close to a page-turning romp as Coetzee is ever likely to write. The effect, then, of reading the book is a perfectly pleasurable one, but Diary of a Bad Year is less of a provocation to thought and feeling than Coetzee's other, more unsettling, books.

Nonetheless, Diary of Bad Year is an extraordinary book, and even if I think it offers less than some of Coetzee's best work, that is very light criticism: few living writers possess Coetzee's mix of intelligence and skill, and he is one of the few writers I can think of where I can't imagine ever calling any book his "worst", even though, as with any writer, he has books that are better than others. As I said at the beginning, this one cries out for rereading, and I look forward to entering its pages again.

03 February 2008

Improv Everywhere

Always one to be behind the times, I'd not heard of Improv Everywhere until today, but a quick scan of the website explained an event I'd unwittingly witnessed a few weeks ago: No Pants 2k8, where hundreds of people in seven cities around the world took off their pants (that is, trousers -- in London I once made what I thought was an innocuous comment about "pants" and everybody thought I was making a ribald comment about underwear) and rode the subways. I'd ridden a train with one of these groups, and assumed they were participating in some sort of marathon. Or something. I don't know. You see weird stuff in NY all the time.

But the latest Improv Everywhere event is marvelous -- be sure to watch the video of Frozen Grand Central. Hilarious and beautiful. Long may they improvise!

One Day of the AWP Bookfair

Due to various technical mishaps, I wasn't able to get into the AWP Bookfair on Friday to help the ever-erstwhile Clayton Kroh with the Best American Fantasy/Weird Tales table. Saturday, though, was no problem, and I spent the day in the labyrinthine world of the Bookfair -- three floors of tables and booths. It took me fifteen minutes just to find our table, placed as it was against a back wall of the farthest room, and once when I wandered out alone I managed to walk in circles for at least ten minutes before realizing the source of the profound sense of deja vu filling my brain.

Tempest Bradford stopped by, and I quickly convinced her to take over the table so I could wander around and give copies of BAF to any magazine or journal whose representatives I could convince to take one. It can be amazingly difficult to give things away at AWP, because so many people are traveling by airplane and cannot carry away piles and piles of the many things it is so easy to accumulate (although BEA is worse by an order of magnitude). But I persevered, and got to learn about a bunch of publications that were new to me. I also got to see folks I hadn't seen in a while, including Eric Lorberer of Rain Taxi, Rusty Morrison and Ken Keegan of Omnidawn, various members of the staff of Tin House (whose amazement that I no longer have a beard made me realize just how long it's been since I saw them last...), Eli Horowitz of McSweeney's, Aaron Burch of Hobart, a bunch of folks from Redivider, the wonder that is Richard Nash of Softskull/Counterpoint, and the great and glorious people of One Story, including editor Hannah Tinti, who, I learned, has a novel coming out in June: The Good Thief (Hannah's story collection Animal Crackers is excellent). I spent a bit of time chatting with Lawrence Schimel, who loaned me a lovely baby-blue bag in which to carry things. Small Beer Press was there in the force of Gavin Grant, Jed Berry, and Kelly Link, and I glanced at an advanced copy of John Kessel's upcoming collection, The Baum Plan for Financial Independence, a book all upstanding citizens will want to place on their bedside tables (no word yet on the deluxe coffee-table edition, which will feature photos of John Kessel and Jim Kelly acting out scenes from the stories). Finally, I got to talk briefly with Charles Flowers, of the Lambda Literary Foundation, who assured me that his excellent literary magazine, Bloom will, indeed, be producing a new issue soon.

And now a list of some of the journals I picked up copies of because they were new to me, though in some cases they are quite venerable publications (listed in the order of which I have pulled them out of my backpack): Third Coast, HOW, Dos Passos Review, So to Speak, Phoebe,The Yalobusha Review, Knockout, and Practice.

By the time I got back to the table, Theodora Goss had joined Tempest. Dora was at AWP to, among other things, help promote Interfictions along with her co-editor Delia Sherman, and there seemed to be a lot of interest among the AWP crowd in the book, as well as in such things as Omnidawn's Paraspheres and our Best American Fantasy. Core genre fiction is still not something that most people who attend AWP seem to get excited about, but particularly among the younger attendees, I noticed a great excitement for fiction that isn't in a strictly realist mode, fiction that draws from all sorts of different sources. Dora said a panel on fairy tales had been extremely popular, as was the panel on realist/nonrealist fiction. There was more interest in Weird Tales than I expected, too, with at least five people asking me, "Is that the Weird Tales?" -- people who seemed to think the magazine had died some years ago. It is very much alive, though, and new fiction editor Ann VanderMeer is working hard to bring its old traditions into the new century.

By the end of the day, I was completely exhausted, and my only regret was that I hadn't been able to be at the entire conference, nor did I get a chance to attend any of the panels, presentations, or parties. Chicago, though, is not so far away...