30 November 2010

Ways of Reading

Ron Silliman has written an interesting post about, among other things, how he reads:
I’m always reading a dozen books at once, sometimes twice that many. [...] In part, this reading style is because I have an aversion to the immersive experience that is possible with literature. Sometimes, especially if I’m "away" on vacation, I’ll plop down in a deck chair on a porch somewhere with a big stack of books of poetry, ten or twelve at a time, reading maybe up to ten pages in a book, then moving it to a growing stack on the far side of the chair until I’ve gone through the entire pile. Then I start over in the other direction. I can keep myself entertained like this for hours. That is pretty close to my idea of the perfect vacation.
I’ve had this style of reading now for some 50 years – it’s not something I’m too likely to change – but I’ve long realized that this is profoundly not what some people want from their literature, and it’s the polar opposite of the experience of "getting lost" in a summer novel, say. Having been raised, as I was, by a grandmother who had long psychotic episodes makes one wary of the notion of "getting lost" in the fantasy life of another.
(This reminds me of something Alice Munro wrote in the introduction to her Selected Stories: "I don’t always, or even usually, read stories from beginning to end. I start anywhere and proceed in either direction.")

Hearing how someone else reads can be, for me at least, both exciting and alienating.  Exciting because it often explains at least something about their reading taste; alienating because it reminds me what an individual experience reading is.  I first encountered this most forcefully when I read Samuel Delany's early essay "About 5,750 Words", in which he presents his own very visual way of interpreting a text as if it is the way everybody reads -- the essay was a revelation to me because I don't build a text in my brain in anything like that method.  

For me, a text is an aural experience first, and the first bits of meaning I get from words and sentences are not visual, even if the word itself has a visual meaning: the phrase the blue room to me is first its related vowel sounds, then a meaning that it's hard to represent with words, but is basically "a space of color" (with the room part taking precedence in my mind, the actual color blue nowhere in sight yet), then finally a vague visual image in my mind, sort of like you'd get in one of the first computer games to have graphics, or in a really basic CAD drawing.  If the room becomes an important part of the paragraph or page, I'll probably visualize one of the four or five prop rooms I keep in my memory: the living room at a childhood friend's house, an apartment I once lived in, a set from a movie I've watched a lot, etc.  (One of the reasons I think I respond so strongly to movies is that they allow an experience I can't get from reading -- a visual experience.)

How we read determines, I expect, a lot about what we read.  My indifference to Victorian novels comes partly from my indifference to scenes that are described in detail; because my brain doesn't create vividly visual scenery, all the detail is clotting matter.  (I love the first pages of Bleak House because of the rhythms of the fragmented sentences, but that's enough for me.  I wouldn't want to read an entire book written that way, and the rest of Bleak House makes my brain feel like my stomach would if I ate a couple pounds of pure cholesterol.)  Dialogue, though, is something I respond strongly to because the first thing my brain does with text is imagine sound from it.  This is also one of the reasons I'm a fairly slow reader -- to read quickly, you can't be hearing all the words.

Often, it seems, we turn our ways of reading into prescriptions for reading: because I read this way, it is a meaningful and good way to read -- and then we go on to think that writers should write in a way that appeals to our own particular way of reading.  (Notice how Silliman equates the way he doesn't read with psychosis.)

A visual reader and an aural reader will probably have quite different tastes and habits in reading, just as someone who likes reading a bunch of books at once, sampling around in them, will probably have quite different tastes from a reader who prefers to read immersively one book at a time.  One of the pleasures of critical writing is to see how a reader with, perhaps, a different way of reading from you makes sense of a text.  These days, I find myself especially attracted to criticism that is more explicative and analytical than evaluative, because what I want to see is not whether to value a text, but how to value it -- what do different ways of reading do to the words on the page?  Unless I get a brain transplant, I'm never going to read all of Bleak House immersively or with pleasure, but that only increases the usefulness for me of an essay by someone who has read Bleak House immersively and with pleasure: such an essay is as close as I'm likely to get to a momentary brain transplant.

Some of this may also explain my hostility to the idea that authorial intention should have relevance for a reader.  I'm no New Critic, but I am fond of Barthes, so I get to the intentional fallacy by way of the death of the author, plus a wink of Wittgenstein and a dash of Derrida.  I'm often curious for reasons of history and material production about how a writer wrote or thought about what they created, but when it comes to the text itself, that is an object offering all sorts of opportunities and almost infinite choices for ways of reading.

26 November 2010

A Thousand Cats

My latest Sandman Meditations column was posted earlier this week.  This one is about "A Dream of a Thousand Cats".

In the column, I mention my new cats, Alex and Oliver.  As an added bonus to all that, here's a picture of them dreaming...

25 November 2010

New Site Design

It's long been time for this site to get a facelift.  Well, now it has one.  I've not only changed some of the formatting and colors (yes, I'm fond of purples; it's my site, it will have lots of purple!), but also taken advantage of Blogger's new Pages feature, familiar to anybody who's used Wordpress.  The pages are listed up there beneath the site header.

The About and Fiction pages are self-explanatory, but the Selections page probably needs a few words of introduction.

For a couple years now, I've wanted to put together a collection of the nonfiction I've written over the last seven years or so (since a piece of mine about George Saunders appeared in English Journal in May 2003), but I've struggled to come up with a book-length manuscript that is more than just a collection of miscellanea.  I could easily put together a collection just of my writings on science fiction, or on film, or general book reviews, or extended essays on writers such as J.M. Coetzee ... but what most excites me is the idea of mixing all of those together and finding some of the connections, echoes, and reverberations.

Thus, the Selections page, which I'm giving the title I've always had for the nonfiction manuscript: Other Choices. One way to read this blog is chronologically. Another way is thematically. Another way is randomly. Each will produce a somewhat different experience, especially if the reader only encounters a few of the hundreds of thousands of words that have been posted here. If I believe in anything it is the power of a reader's creative choice, a reader's freedom and agency, and I try to exercise that in my readings of other people's texts, so I hope to encourage it in the readers of my own. What is invisible, what is unsaid may be as important as what is visible and enunciated. Choices, by definition, imply other choices.

The Selections page is not complete, and will probably never been finished, because I'm not sure what "finished" would be. I'm going to keep playing with what is there, creating various groups of my writings, editing the ones that are there. I hope eventually to put some of the posts together as a single page to encourage folks to read a few at once and find connections that way (and also to give myself some ability to edit and clarify the texts), but for now they're just links to the original posts.

I expect to continue fiddling not only with the Selections page, but also the colors and fonts for the whole site over the next few weeks as I try it out on different computers to see how it all looks. Please don't be alarmed...

21 November 2010

The Horror! The Comics!

The Center for Cartoon Studies' Schulz Library has a great blog, which, if you're at all interested in comics or graphic novels, provides wonderful reading.

Today, for instance, they posted a marvelous piece by S.R. Bissette about a new anthology of 1950s horror comics.  This is part one of what looks to be a three-part series.

I also just discovered Bissette's own site, itself a marvel.  Don't miss his series of posts on LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka's Dutchman.

13 November 2010

Security, Causality

We make fiction for the same reason as we make buildings: security. Rigid notions of causality in fiction have developed as shelter from a fear of the unstructuredness of actual events. Few societies have been more afraid than ours of losing a status quo that was illusory in the first place.

--M. John Harrison

Worlds Apart

I was writing a comment in reply to Ray Davis on a previous post, and realized it might be better as a post than a comment.

Here's Ray's original comment:
Huh. The "problem that had long puzzled" Josipovici was precisely -- like precisely, except for some name-swapping which sharpens the point, like Joyce for Mann and Beckett for Bernhard -- what led me to start looking into science fiction in 1976. (And eventually led me here, of course.)

From what I've read of Josipovici, I suspect he arrived at different answers than myself.
My feelings are similar, and are one of the reasons that though my particular pleasures are different from Josipovici's, I'm sympathetic to his argument. Those feelings are also a reason why I have a knee-jerk negative reaction to arguments that pose science fiction (broadly defined) as the opposite of Modernism.  (Different, sure.  Opposite, nope.)  That's an interpretation that doesn't work for me because it contradicts my own reading life, which is, yes, a narcissistic (solipsistic?) approach to an argument, but hey, it's what I've got.  For me, science fiction and Modernism are complementary.

"You are Not I" Film Found

A fascinating story in the New York Times about Sarah Driver's 1981 film of Paul Bowles's brilliant story "You are Not I" -- a film in which Luc Sante is an actor, and on which Jim Jarmusch served as cinematographer and co-writer.

I have no idea if the film is any good, but the Times story of its creation, loss, and discovery -- as well as the story of Bowles's archives -- is really amazing.

12 November 2010

Never Let Me Reload

A couple quick notes...
  • Weeks ago, Mary Rickert emailed me to let me know about a lovely YouTube video created as a trailer for her forthcoming book Holiday.  I completely forgot to post it.  I haven't seen the book yet, but I know many of the stories in it, and I know Mary, so I have no hesitation in recommending it.
  • I just received my contributor's copy of Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded, and even though it doesn't have a picture of a steampunk reloading press, it's still a good book.  The interior design is particulary striking, especially in the section to which I contributed some lesser-known information about an ancestor of mine, the "Secret History of Steampunk".  (Also, I would like to take this opportunity to publicly deny all knowledge of the Mecha-Ostrich, despite the vicious rumors circulating about some sort of illicit scholarship I am said to have engaged in.)  I thought the first Steampunk anthology was good fun, and I especially enjoyed Stepan Chapman's story in it; Steampunk II feels, on a cursory glance and glimpsing read, even richer and weirder.
  • Strange Horizons has now published my review of the movie Never Let Me Go.  For some reason, I really struggled to write this review, partly because it was a struggle for me to figure out what I really made of it.  Further complicating the attempt was the fact that I had no easy access to see the movie a second time to clarify things -- I had seen it over at Dartmouth as part of their mini version of the Telluride Film Festival, and the movie wasn't playing anywhere within 100 miles of me other than that.  I really thought I was going to have to bail on the review, but then I decided to do what I always try to do in such cases: make the struggle part of the writing, because it would be dishonest to create a fluid and uncomplicated piece when my response was neither fluid nor uncomplicated.  So that's what I did.  (Some folks might be curious to reference that review with my 2005 blog post about the novel.)
  • Over at Gestalt Mash, Paul Smith has written about Hou Hsiao-Hsien's film Three Lives, and it's a review well worth reading, especially if you're not familiar with Hou's movies.  I'm still learning to appreciate Hou's pacing, so can't call myself a real fan yet, but I liked some of Three Lives and some of Goodbye South, Goodbye.  Of the films I've seen, my favorite (at the moment) is Millennium Mambo, which one of Hou's greatest supporters in the U.S, Jonathan Rosenbaum, called "one of the emptiest good-looking films by a major director that I can recall".  Ahh well.  I may be fated never to appreciate Hou fully, which is why I keep reading folks like Rosenbaum (and Paul Smith): it's clear to me there's a there there, but it takes me some work to find it.  Worthwhile work, though.
  • Speaking of Paul Smith, he's joined with Larry Nolen and Jeff VanderMeer to write the occasional group-review of a book.  Their latest is Matt Bell's How They Were Found.  Paul's take is here, Larry's here, Jeff's here.

09 November 2010

Catching Up, Once Again

This semester of teaching (at two schools) has pretty well kept me away from the blog here, but things are beginning to even out, and I should be able to return to my regularly irregular posting in the next few weeks.  I will probably even soon be able to reply to that email you sent me.  For now, though, some quick notes...
  • I've now finished reading Gabriel Josipovici's What Ever Happened to Modernism?, and will start writing a review of it for Rain Taxi very soon (I'm only about a month late on that...)  I found the book provocative, fascinating, and enlightening, but even if I hadn't, I think I'd be amazed at how stupid many of the reviews of it have been (the link is to The Complete Review's roundup; their own review is not one I agree with, but though I don't think it's up to their normal standard, it's not awful).  I won't address this in the review I write, since it doesn't seem appropriate, but I'll say it here: I don't think some of the negative reviewers actually read the book.  They certainly didn't read it carefully, and many seemed to read while having an axe in hand, ready for grinding.  Mark Thwaite addressed the problem back in September, and Stephen Mitchelmore further responded to it last month (in a blog post that I seem to need to link to at least once a week -- Mitchelmore and I are really different sorts of readers, I think, but that post alone is enough to make me grateful for the blogosphere).  When I started reading What Ever Happened to Modernism, I was ready to believe that some of the negative reviewers had misconstrued some of its arguments or maybe missed some of its subtleties, but the more I read and the more I then compared what I read to the reviews, the more I was aghast at how much was missed.  Many reviewers seemed to have read not the book but a problematic piece in The Guardian, which Josipovici has denounced.  (At least D.J. Taylor apologized, though he still called the book "horribly partial and wrong-headed", revealing himself to be both a pot and a kettle.)  It's true that Josipovici doesn't have much use for Martin Amis, Ian McEwen, Julian Barnes, and some of the other more prominent British writers of the last few decades, but his discussion of this is not a major portion of the book, and he tempers it with such statements as, "But I realise that this may be largely because of who and what I am."  He praises William Golding and Muriel Spark, he writes marvelously about music and visual art, his discussions of Wordsworth showed me ways to enjoy a poet whose wonders had previously eluded me, and he pointed me toward a book I'm now reading with wonder, Farewell to an Idea by T.J. Clark.  And now that I've written more than I intended to about What Ever Happened to Modernism here, it's time to get to work on that review...
  • Josipovici's admiration for William Golding was not news to me, because he's sung Golding's praises before, but I read his latest comments on Golding at roughly the same time as I watched the Criterion Collection DVD of Lord of the Flies, with a commentary by Peter Brook that is among the most enlightening commentary tracks I've encountered.  I worship Peter Brook, so I'm biased, but though I had seen the movie quite a few times (it's one of the few cases where I love both the book and film), I'd never listened to the commentary.  It provides not just good information about how the film was made, but also, as is typical of Brook, a philosophy of art.  The additional comments of producer Lewis Allen, director of photography Tom Hollyman, and cameraman/editor Gerald Feil add context and provide a fine glimpse of Brook's working methods.
I think I had other things to write about here, but they are slipping my mind, and time is short...

01 November 2010

Strange Horizons, World Fantasy Award, and Susan

Yesterday, Susan Marie Groppi won a well-deserved World Fantasy Award as editor-in-chief of Strange Horizons.  I did a little dance for joy when I found out, because aside from this here blog, Strange Horizons is the publication I've had the longest ongoing relationship with as a writer.  It was just about six years ago, in fact, that Susan first asked if I'd be willing to write an occasional column, and the request just about knocked the wind out of me, because all the writing I'd done had been stuff I'd had to hustle myself -- nobody had ever asked me to write for them before.

I've had the pleasure of writing reviews and interviews for SH, too, and it really always has been a pleasure, because the community of staff is exemplary.  The magazine has lasted longer than most of its peers, and the quality of work has been astoundingly strong for a weekly website.

Susan's award was in the "non-professional" category (a category I have a certain fondness for) because though SH pays its writers professional rates, the staff are not paid.  It's truly a labor of love.

Susan announced today something she's been preparing to announce for a while: she is stepping down as editor-in-chief.  Niall Harrison will be moving up from being the reviews editor to being editor-in-chief, and Abigail Nussbaum will take over as reviews editor.  I've worked with Niall on all the reviews I've written for SH, and he's been among my favorite editors, seeing things in my drafts that I didn't, and saving me from potentially horrifying mistakes (nobody could save me from all of them, but still, his average is great!)  I've been reading Abigail's writing for years, and just turned in a review for her a few days ago (yup, she, too, saved me from an embarrassing mistake, so I am already thrilled she's on board).

Strange Horizons is in great hands, and will, I expect, continue to thrive.

But I'm going to miss Susan something awful.  She was mostly hands-off when it came to my columns, but it was her presence that I felt whenever I wrote them.  It's much easier for me to write when I have a sense of an audience, especially one or two people, and Susan was always the one person I hoped liked the column, the one person I hoped to please, because she had been the one who asked, who said, "Hey, I think you can do this."  Now and then I'd get a quick email saying: "I really liked that one."  It made whatever effort it took to write the piece, whatever seas of self-doubt I sailed to reach the shore, more than worth it.

I'll probably keep thinking of Susan as I write the column; six years of habit is hard to break.  I don't know what new projects she'll join (after some much-needed rest!), but she's continuing as a co-editor in the fiction department, and will, I expect, continue reading the other stuff in SH each week, just like the rest of us, and maybe my column, too, as long as I can keep it going (I never thought I'd last more than a few months, never mind entire years!).

In all that time, though, I don't think I've sent her a simple note of thanks, myself, because it's really hard to write a simple note that really and truly means: "Thanks for everything."  We've got a massive vocabulary for insults and criticisms, for put-downs and take-downs; the language of gratitude feels impoverished in comparison.  But I mean it: Thanks.  For everything.

Strange Horizons is still in the midst of a fund drive, and they're half-way to their goal of raising $7,000.  One great way of celebrating -- of thanking -- Susan and the site would be to contribute.