27 February 2009

Nebula Nominees

Okay, now the world feels small. For the first time, I know someone in all the fiction categories of the Nebula nominees. And not just like encountered on Facebook once (though there is that...) -- but was roommates at the World Fantasy Convention with (Dave Schwartz), wrote a story with (Jeff Ford), have known since I was in the 7th grade (Jim Kelly). Rick Bowes keeps my first child in a basement in Hell's Kitchen. Kelley Eskridge I know the least of the group, but she's among the awesomest people on Earth, so I have to claim her anyway. (She's teaching my second child to dance.) John Kessel I met for the first time this summer, but I think he was the one who convinced Rick that my first child needed a basement and some electrodes.

It's a good thing I'm not a SFWA member, because my approach to awards is to root for my friends, and I would have trouble voting with so many good people nominated. I think I'd advocate for mud wrestling to determine the winners. That would certainly liven up the Nebula banquets!

Congrats to all the nominees, including the folks I don't know.

Best American Fantasy update

As Jeff notes, the Best American Fantasy series is moving to Underland Press for the future, starting with Best American Fantasy 3 guest-edited by Kevin Brockmeier. We owe thanks to Prime and Sean Wallace for helping the series get launched.

The much-delayed second volume is, apparently, now available. Folks who got advanced copies seem to like the book, which includes stories by Rick Moody, Kage Baker, Peter Beagle, Kelly Link, Jeffrey Ford, Judy Budnitz, and other writers equally deserving of mention. For a sense of the book, check out Liz Hand's review at F&SF or the story-by-story reading at Bookspot Central.

Volume three is shaping up nicely, and we've nearly settled on the contents, so once we have done that and I've secured reprint permission for everything, I will post the contents here.

22 February 2009

Interview at Bibliophile Stalker

Somehow, in the merry-go-round-that-aspires-to-be-a-rollercoaster that is my life, I missed this interview that Charles Tan conducted with me about Best American Fantasy (volume 2 is now, finally, making its way into the world!), writing, reading, theatre, teaching, reviewing, etc. It was a fun interview, and I'm grateful to Charles for giving me the opportunity to ramble on about some favorite topics. Here's a taste:
What for you makes a good story?

I wish it were something simple and reliable -- I wish, for instance, that I loved every story with the word "arugula" in it. That would make writing and reading much easier. But, alas, it's all more ineffable than that. Generally, it boils down to surprise and individuality. I don't continue reading stories if they don't contain some element of surprise -- if they don't make me wonder where the writer will take the next sentence, the next paragraph, the next page. I'm not a fast reader, so if I feel like I can write the rest of the story in my head, I stop reading. Similarly, I want stories that are not like all the other stories I encounter -- I want stories that create a sense of individual voice and craft. Thousands and thousands of stories are published every year, and most of them have far too much in common with each other.

20 February 2009

I Kill Bookstores

Scott Esposito has an interesting post pointing to a few ideas concerning that ever-present question, "What will happen to bookstores?" He quotes Karl Pohrt of the struggling Shaman Drum bookstore: "What is the next version of a bookstore?" It is, as Scott says, an essential question. No matter how nostalgic we may get about the good old days when indies ruled the earth and everybody read books instead of playing with their internet machines and rotting their brains, the world has changed, and bookstores will either adapt or die. (Much of the problem at Shaman Drum, it seems, lies with textbook sales, a somewhat different beast from trade books, and, I expect, far more doomed, partly because they are generally items of obligation, their sales not fueled by interest, curiosity, and passion. And because most textbooks tend to be priced like precious jewels, buyers will seek out ways to avoid paying those prices anywhere they can.)

From Scott's post, I also discovered the Vroman's Bookstore blog, which I hadn't known about before. A post there called "Let's Tell the World What to Read Next" offers some clues as to where bookstores can go from here -- building off an interview with Seth Godin, who talks about the future of music in a world where selling CDs is no longer going to bring in huge profits, the post applies to bookstores Godin's idea that merchants in an age of abundance can no longer be satisfied with helping to provide stuff to people, but rather, if they want to make a living, they will need to provide guidance and selection amidst the abundance. The best bookstores have always done this, and now they may have opportunities for reaching audiences that they never had before.

At the end of the post, Patrick of Vroman's criticizes the widespread use of Amazon.com links by blogs and websites. This got me thinking further about the whole issue of books and how people get them, and it reminded me of a few sentences recently posted on the Small Beer Press blog:
Amazon take[s] such a huge cut that having books there is almost a loss leader ad for our books in stores. (People still like to pick up and see what they’re buying—and our books are all printed on pretty pretty recycled paper.)
I can't pretend to have all the answers for how bookstores, or any other kind of stores, will survive. But I can look at my own practices as a frequent book buyer, library user, teacher, blogger, etc. -- reading and writing are the central elements of my life, for better or worse. And many of the things I do are the sorts of things that kill bookstores.

I don't think of bookstores as receptacles for my charity, and so when I shop at independent bookstores, it's not usually to try to help them stay in business (the one exception to this was the Oscar Wilde Bookstore when I was living near it. But I didn't buy enough.) When I was in the NY metro area, I tended to shop at independent bookstores when I bought new books -- St. Mark's, Shakespeare & Co, and McNally Robinson (now McNally Jackson) were my favorites. I shopped there because I would find things at those stores that I wouldn't have known about if I hadn't gone in. I use the internet to buy books I already know about; I use bookstores to make discoveries. The latter is much more fun -- browsing is an addiction -- and also leads to much more impulsive buying, which is bad for my wallet and good for the health of bookstores.

Now I live in rural New Hampshire, and the nearest independent bookstores that can provide me with much opportunity for discovery are at least an hour and a half's drive away. I don't much like driving, so I don't tend to go to them. If I get the urge to browse, I drive half an hour to the nearest Borders in Concord, which, as Borders stores go, is actually pretty good. I stopped in yesterday for a rest after 3 hours of driving around doing business stuff and ended up spending money I didn't intend to spend, because I discovered there that paperbacks of Steven Millhauser's Dangerous Laughter and Edmund White's Hotel de Dream had been released. So I picked them up. (I was also happy to see Jed Berry's first novel, The Manual of Detection was on display on the front table, but I already had that, thanks to Jed and the publisher. It's the novel I'm reading next.)

The nearest independent bookstores to me do not offer a particularly valuable experience for the kind of reader I am. One is primarily a textbook store in a college town, the other caters to tourists, and does well with that (the fiction section is generally tailored toward the kind of people who really like Jodi Picoult novels. This is smart business -- in a big tourist town, there are lots of readers who like Jodi Picoult and want to read other things that will give them a similar reading experience). It would, in many ways, be suicide for an independent bookstore in rural New Hampshire to cater to someone like me. Thus, I rely on Borders and the internet these days, but whenever I visit Manhattan, I always make a stop at St. Mark's and McNally Jackson, because they are places of joy and discovery, places I feel a certain loyalty to.

As for Amazon.com, that's a more complex problem. I use Amazon links not because I make a lot of money off them (at best $100 or so a year) but because I like the information they give. I have thought about switching to Powell's a few times, and may yet, but it's still not quite comprehensive enough, though they seem to get better by the month. Indiebound is useless to me because I don't care where you buy your books -- what I want is to be able to give you information about the book, let you look for other books like it, let you find used copies if you want, etc. I want a link to give you the most information and options with the fewest clicks. So far, Amazon does that best for me.

As for buying new books from Amazon ... I hardly ever do it. I am a publisher's nightmare: I buy used books and I use libraries. Partly, this is because I do get a number of books sent as review copies from publishers (fewer these days, since I've cut back on reviewing). Mostly, it's because I'm not independently wealthy and yet I want to read a lot. I buy small press books out of loyalty to certain presses -- each year at Readercon, I buy at least a few of the Small Beer books I don't already have, for instance -- but the big publishers only occasionally, such as yesterday. I'm glad not everyone is like me, because otherwise no books would be published at all, but so it goes.

So these days, yes, I kill bookstores. I buy used books, I use libraries, I link to Amazon from this blog. I'm not feeling too much more guilt than I felt when I stopped using the local video store and switched to Netflix. It increases my access to movies, and it adds to my happiness. I'm sorry the local video stores have all gone out of business, but they rarely had anything I wanted to see, anyway.

We now have the option of abundance, and the business models that survive will be the ones that give us the most satisfying, least confusing path into that abundance, and help us navigate when we're there. Places that provide discovery and joy, surprise and wonder. That's what bookstores were all about even in the days of scarcity, and I expect, with some creativity and adjustment, they can continue to be that still.

14 February 2009

The Conversation, Part V: In Which I End with a Provisional Conclusion

For all you folks waiting on the edges of your seats at home, here is my last contribution to The Conversation: Part Five. (In which we continue to talk about zombie movies and bring in Shakespeare for a cameo appearance.)

If I had to find a pullquote, it would be: "Inevitably, I end up distrusting my own statements. And yet I continue to make them. Compulsion? Insanity? I'm not sure."

"My Dear Emily" by Joanna Russ

I haven't even updated my course blog this term, so I feel a bit guilty writing here about a story I recently taught, but this story has dug its way into my head and I need to write down some ideas before I start babbling in Babylonian or something...

As I've previously mentioned, I am using David Hartwell's The Dark Descent in my "Murder, Madness, Mayhem" class. It's one of my all-time favorite anthologies -- beautifully organized, with a selection of stories from various genres and eras, many of the stories allowing all sorts of discussion-fueling comparison, making it not just a great read, but a particularly valuable teaching tool.*

I had the students read "My Dear Emily" on the same day they were to read J. Sheridan Le Fanu's "Schalken the Painter" and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper". The idea was to talk about gender roles in the stories, since we've been talking about how writers use various elements in their fiction -- setting, plot, character, etc. (this course is, after all, supposed to be partly an intro to lit class). The students have become, even in a short time, more attentive readers, and now I'm trying to throw in some of the interdisciplinary elements required of the class, hoping to get the students to look at the texts as, among other things, cultural artifacts, since one of the main questions fueling the course is: Why would anybody write this sort of stuff? What do representations of murder, mayhem, and madness do, and why are they so common in so many different sorts of art? How do writers represent violence, and are there moral implications to those representations?

"Schalken the Painter" and "The Yellow Wallpaper" lend themselves well to such discussion, but though "My Dear Emily", a vampire story first published in F&SF in 1962, and reprinted various times (see the comments at this entry at Ellen Kushner's LiveJournal -- note Graham Sleight's information about the two endings; here I'm discussing the original magazine ending, since that's what's included in The Dark Descent, but I expect I'll be writing more about this story in the future...)

"My Dear Emily" has been well discussed from a feminist viewpoint by Jeanne Cortiel, so I won't venture into that territory here -- what interests me about the story at the moment is its use of pronouns.

I've had a strange relationship to Russ's writing, and much of that strange relationship comes, it seems to me, from exactly that -- her writing. Even in her earliest work (and "My Dear Emily" is relatively early), she is an extraordinarily precise stylist in a manner comparable to Thomas Disch and Samuel Delany, and I find myself responding to her work in a way similar to how I seem to respond to Disch -- a passionate admiration for some individual short stories and an inability to appreciate many of the novels. In fact, the techniques that hold my interest within the condensed space of the short fiction may be what prevent me from appreciating the longer fiction. The precision and care of Russ's prose, the intelligence of her formal structures, the intellectual rigor of her purpose -- these qualities carry me through certain stories, giving a real intellectual pleasure, while in a novel-length work they suffocate the pleasure I am able to draw from them, making the reading more dutiful than enjoyable.

But let's talk about pronouns. "My Dear Emily" opens with an excerpt from a letter (datelined "San Francisco, 188-") from a person who states, "I am so looking forward to seeing my dear Emily at last" and who refers to himself as "her dear Will". After the letter, the first sentence is, "Emily came home from school with her bosom friend Charlotte." The two are on a train (with Emily reading "Mr. Emerson's poems"). They talk about "savages" and being carried off, and our first moment of possible confusion occurs:
"The New England look," Charlotte snaps resentfully. She makes her opera-glasses slap shut.

"I should like to be carried off," she proposes; "but then I don't have an engagement to look forward to. A delicate affair."
Grammatically, the "she" in the dialogue tag of the second paragraph refers to Charlotte, but if we are used to the convention of starting a new paragraph for each new speaker, it's entirely possible that we will, on a first reading, assume it is Emily speaking about an engagement of Charlotte's.

Soon, Emily cuts her finger on the opera-glasses, causing her to get some blood on Emerson's poems, a moment rich with all sorts of symbolism that I'm going to ignore right now, because there follows a space break and a new scene that begins:
He wakes up slowly, mistily, dizzily, with a vague memory of having fallen asleep on plush.
Here we might say, echoing Beckett, "Who he?" Readers build possibilities in their minds at this point, and probably settle, provisionally at least, on Will, since he is the only man whose name we know at this moment in the story. The writing in this section is quite different from the writing in the first section -- two long paragraphs finishing with a short final one, as opposed to the short paragraphs of mostly dialogue in the first part of the story. The writing is interior, subjective, a bit overwrought, describing the thoughts of someone apparently buried alive, someone who rises only after the sun vanishes. The last paragraph is a marvelous mixing of tones:
"Alive!" he cries, in triumph. It is -- as usual -- his first word of the day.
The first sentence echoes the classic line from Frankenstein (the movie) and would not be out of place in a 19th century gothic novel. The second sentence is rather humorous because of the change in tone, the recontextualization of the exclamation from something apparently extraordinary to something routine.

The next section begins with the sentence,
Dear Emily, sweet Emily, met Martin Guevara three days after she arrived home.
On a second reading, we will know that the "he" of the second section is this very Martin Guevara, a man both dangerous and attractive (perhaps even revolutionary). On a first reading, though, we are stuck in limbo. The story will continue to present some moments of confusion, because though we have all of the necessary information, often, even up to the end, we don't yet know that we know what we need to know, nor do we know how to apply it. Emily and Martin Guevara talk to each other at a church supper (Emily's father is referred to as the Reverend), and their dialogue is enigmatic:
"The lady of the house," he says.
"I'm back from school."
"And you've learned--?"
"Let me go, please."
"Never."
It's wonderful dialogue -- sharp, intriguing, full of subtext. Emily seems to know Martin Guevara, to have encountered him before, to know something of him, to be used to his ability to appear and disappear with the stealth of a cat. She becomes upset. "Sweet William has to lead her to bed." Guevara, "head framed in an evening window", finds his way in:
"San Francisco is a lovely city. I had ancestors here three hundred years ago."

"Don't think that because I came here--"

"She doesn't," he whispers, grasping her shoulder, "She doesn't know a thing."
Pronoun trouble again. Who she? Emily? Charlotte? It's entirely possible that I have missed a subtlety, or am reading too much into this, but I don't think the question of this antecedent is ever solved. I'm inclined to think Guevara is referring to Charlotte, but it's also possible that, for his own nefarious reasons, his own pleasure in confusion, he has decided to talk to Emily about herself in the third person, to suggest some disassociation of personality.

Later, after Guevara has nuzzled Emily's "abused little neck", the word "vampire" appears for the first time in the story:
"Stop it!" she whispers, horrified. "Stop it! Stop it!"

But a vampire who has found a soul-mate (even a temporary one) will be immoderate. There's no stopping them.

Charlotte's books have not prepared her for this.
(We had learned earlier in the story that while Emily likes to read such things as Emerson's poems, Charlotte likes popular novels.) In the sentence "Charlotte's books have not prepared her for this," the antecedent to "her" is Charlotte -- and yet in the context of the story, it makes more sense for the antecedent to be Emily. It may simply be sloppy writing, but Russ is a fastidious writer, and it makes sense to me that this moment would be one more where pronouns and antecedents are in flux, where the antecedents are either/or and both/and. Throughout the story we are given little pushes to confuse Will/Guevara and Emily/Catherine.

Guevara frees Emily from Will. (And, perhaps, from will -- or at least the will of the society of her day, the will to marriage, the will to domesticity.) In their conversation at the church supper, Emily says to Martin, "If I had your trick of walking like a cat, I could get out of anything." Guevara replies, "I can get out of anything. Out of an engagement, a difficulty. I can even get you out of anything." Emily clearly does not want to be engaged to Will (earlier: "'I love Will dearly.' She wondered if God would strike her dead for a hypocrite."), and here Guevara seems to offer the escape of vampirism. Will infantilizes Emily, seems oblivious to her intelligence and strength, while Guevara engages her intelligence (comparing it, favorably to Charlotte's, who, he says, has "a plentiful lack of brains"), even if ultimately she is just a source of sustenance for him. And ultimately, yes, that is what she is -- despite all his talk of vampirism being the most passionate sort of love and desire, his conversion of her to undeath is a rape -- a sexualized violation of her will (if not her Will). At the end of the story, the other men in Emily's life (her father and Will) destroy Guevara by exposing him to the sun. Emily seeks refuge with Charlotte, who has herself become a vampire, and who warns Emily at an important moment not to go home -- though Emily does not recognize her, because Charlotte wears a veil. She lifts her veil, revealing herself, and then, at the end of the story, Emily flees, seeking help:
--She knows where she can get it. Three hundred feet down the hill in a valley, a wooded protected valley sunk below the touch of the rising sun, therre she runs through the trees, past the fence that separates the old graveyard from the new, expensive, polished granite -- Charlotte is her friend, she loves her: Charlotte in her new home will make room for her.
The pronouns and antecedents now all work together: "She loves her" is true of both Emily and Charlotte. Assuming Emily's optimism and trust are warranted, and there's no reason not to assume so, both women will, in fact, make room for the other. The help and safety offered by the men was an illusion; sometimes tempting, sometimes confusion, but always violent and destructive. A clear understanding of the relationships proved impossible: too much was hidden, too much was unspoken, too many words wouldn't quite line up. Charlotte will, Emily expects, resolve this for her. Their knowledge will align. Their words will make sense together.


*Some folks have asked which stories I'm using. I'd love to use them all, but alas need to fit in a bunch of other texts as well, so I had to make some painful choices, and, because of length or because of needs for comparison, I ended up having to throw out some of my favorite stories in the book. (To somewhat make up for this, I gave the students a paper assignment in which they have to write about a story of their choice that we aren't reading for class.) Anyway, the stories, in the order that we read them, are: Stephen King, "The Reach"; Harlan Ellison, "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs"; Nathaniel Hawthorne, "Young Goodman Brown" (which I got to teach in the town where Hawthorne died!); Lucy Clifford, "The New Mother" (if you haven't read this story, read it -- utter weird genius); Shirley Jackson, "Summer People"; Clive Barker, "Dread"; William Faulkner, "A Rose for Emily"; Flannery O'Connor, "Good Country People"; Edgar Allan Poe, "Fall of the House of Usher"; J. Sheridan Le Fanu, "Schalken the Painter"; Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "The Yellow Wallpaper"; Joanna Russ, "My Dear Emily"; Charles Dickens, "The Signal-Man"; Joyce Carol Oates, "Night-Side"; Fritz Leiber, "Belsen Express"; Robert Bloch, "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper"

06 February 2009

The Conversation, Part IV: Zombie Movies, Star Trek, & Proust

Not much content hereabouts lately, because my attentions have been given to other things and my time taken up by various projects, but my conversation with Eric Rosenfield continues on apace, and in this installment I reveal a certain fondness for zombie movies and an inability to appreciate either Proust or Star Trek.