21 June 2010

Reality Narrative Death Point

My latest Strange Horizons column has just been posted, and it's a sort of meditation on four books: Reality Hunger by David Shields, Narrative Power edited by L. Timmel Duchamp, Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor, and Vanishing Point by Ander Monson.

All four books are well worth reading, thinking about, arguing with. I especially hope that in the wake of Paul Di Filippo's review of Who Fears Death in the B&N Review that the column will offer an alternative way of evaluating the novel. For the way Di Filippo read the book, I think his assessment is valid, but he read it in the most narrow and silly way possible, the way someone who's only ever read science fiction would read. And I know he hasn't only read science fiction, so I'm perplexed at the assumptions he applies. I agree with his desire for fewer savior of the world/universe/everything characters, and in fact once wrote another SH column about it, but I think there's abundant evidence in the text that Okorafor is a smart writer who is as aware of this paradigm as anybody else, and is both using and critiquing it in complex, multi-layered ways, just as she is simultaneously using and critiquing other tropes, tendencies, templates -- not all of them from SF -- throughout the novel.


  1. Matt -- Interesting column, particularly as I am reading Vanishing Point myself at the moment (Reality Hunger is next up).

    I listened to Shields on Colin Marshall's The Marketplace of Ideas podcast and I was struck by the fact that his desire appears to be to co-opt the subject matter of traditional philosophy but to use instead this toolbox of cross-medium methods that he has picked up.

    So you're quite right that he should piss off and read philosophy but I think he would have an answer for you :-)

  2. RH and VP make a great couple, so I'll be curious what you think of them, Jonathan. I didn't take Shields to task for not being up with his philosophy, I don't think -- I did that to some of the essays in the Narrative Power anthology. Some of that book is really interesting, thorough, and provocative, but then there are essays where the writers just make astoundingly banal and ordinary observations about narrative and would have done well to read even just a little little little bit of narrative theory before jumping in to make theoretical claims about whatever they perceive to be narrative.

    The only real problem I had with Shields was that I thought he was setting up a false dichotomy to strengthen the manifesto qualities of the book. But the form of the book didn't make that, for me at least, hugely annoying, because Shields's own voice is subsumed within the whole. In some ways, I think it shows he's a better editor than he is a writer!

  3. Are you aware of Christian Salmon's book about storytelling? Translated from the French I reviewed it a little while back and it drove me nuts because of its refusal to a) engage with any body of thought about storytelling and/or narrative or b) to make any proper theoretical distinctions himself.

    I think we can all agree that narrative is there to be deconstructed or at least engaged with on a theoretical level, but that's been true since Ballard put out Atrocity Exhibition (a book which, I think, does pretty much exactly what Shields seems to be asking for but from within a fictional context).

    I'm looking forward to Reality Hunger actually and do plan to write about it.

  4. Great SH review: I don't think I would have understood Gilman's contribution to Narrative Power without having read a little Hayden White.

    Gotta love David Shields's reference to "Samuel Pelang's The Motion of Light in Water." At least this reviewer loved it.

  5. I think that reviewer may have been working from the galleys rather than the finished book -- my copy of the hardcover (which I'm assuming is a first printing, unless it sold way better in the first month than the publisher thought it did) on page 64, paragraph number 189, has Chip's name right.

    I've only got a passing knowledge of Hayden White, but my assumption of where Gilman was coming from was from frustration at some tendencies within museum studies (ones I'll admit I have more sympathy with than her position, since I'm an inveterate postmodernist in my inclinations, though of course, being an inveterate postmodernist, I would shy away from trying to define "postmodernism"). What she has to say about frontier history is moderately interesting, but her attempt to extend that to a general theory of narrative was, for me, supremely unconvincing.