30 April 2011

Noted: Genre and Disgust

Some passages from books due back at the library...

From "The Politics of Genre" by Stephen Heath, in Debating World Literature edited by Christopher Prendergrast, Verso, 2004, pp.172-173:
The politics of genre turns on the distinctions it makes and the hierarchies those distinctions readily support: between high and low, sacred and secular, poetic and prosaic, literary and non-literary genres. To challenge and transform such hierarchies involves a range of shifts in perception and genre judgement, notably as to what counts as the proper matter and language of literature, as to what to recognize. The development of the novel provides a powerful middle class with a genre that seeks to represent the terms of its world in defiance of traditional genre views of the actual social life of men and women as fitting only for comedy or satire (the supreme genres are conceived as universal, expressing essential truths in abstraction from the contingencies of the everyday). Diaries, domestic journals, personal narratives, are examples of genres that recent feminist theory and practice has been concerned to accredit, calling into question the gender-ideological bases of existing genre assumptions (distinctions between objective and subjective, public and private, political and personal).

The various forms of the writing of women's lives could be seen as inferior genres because "female", the novel as low genre because of its readership (taking in the lower-middle and working classes and importantly including women) and the commercial nature of its production for this readership, the new "public" (it was often attacked as "democratic"). "The public is so stupid," commented Flaubert, whose own work marks a significant moment in the development of a split between high and low within the genre itself: on the one hand, the "literary" or "serious" novel; on the other, "popular" or "mass" fiction, the market standardization of genre products -- romance, mystery, science fiction, crime, best-sellers (all the drugstore shelf-headings). The split was increasingly supported by an academic institution of literature that elaborated canons of works and defined quality, while the power of genre conceptions in consumer mass cultural production only increased importance. Nowhere is this more visible than in television with its host of recognized -- expected -- genres: sitcoms, news, game shows, reality shows, talk shows, et al. Such genre domination is at once part of the hierarchization process -- high genres are seeen as full of individual works -- and a fact of an "entertainment industry" that aims to maximize profit by organizing production around a limited number of models. Non-standard programmes, those that cross over or upset genre distinctions, can quickly become sites of disquiet and political sensitivity (witness the need felt to keep documentary and drama separate, the controversies surrounding thier "confusion").

The strength of genre classifications is simultaneous with a theory and practice of writing that seeks to undermine them because of that strength, the hold of ready-made expectations of meaning.
From The Politics and Poetics of Transgression by Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, Cornell University Press, 1986, p.77:
[Ben] Jonson constituted his identity in opposition to the theatre and the fair. Through the imaginary separation of the scholar's study and library from the theatrical marketplace, Jonson simultaneously mapped out the divisions between the "civilized" and the grotesque body, between the stunted quarto and the handsome folio, between the "author" and the hack, between "pure" literature and social hybridization. In the image of the fair, the author could rewrite the social and economic relations which determined his own existence; in the fair he could stigmatize the voices which competed against his own and reveal just how "dirty" were the hands which sullied his "pure" wares.

But disgust bears the impress of desire, and Jonson found in the huckster, the cony-catcher, and the pick-pocket an image of his own precarious and importuning craft. Proclaiming so loudly how all the other plays were mere cozenings, did not Jonson pursue the perennial techniques of the mountebank who decried the deceptions and the false wares of others the more easily to practise his own deceptions and pass of his own productions as the "real thing"?
p. 191:
The bourgeois subject continuously defined and re-defined itself through the exclusion of what it marked out as "low" -- as dirty, repulsive, noisy, contaminating. Yet that very act of exclusion was constitutive of its identity. The low was internalized under the sign of negation and disgust.

But disgust always bears the imprint of desire. These low domains, apparently expelled as "Other", return as the object of nostalgia, longing, and fascination. The forest, the fair, the theatre, the slum, the circus, the seaside-resort, the "savage": all these, placed at the outer limit of civil life, become symbolic contents of bourgeois desire.

Timmi Duchamp on Joanna Russ

Timmi Duchamp's memorial post for Joanna Russ is beautiful, informative, and deeply affecting; a marvelous testament to a marvelous person.

29 April 2011

Joanna Russ (1937-2011)

Reliable sources are reporting that Joanna Russ died this morning at a hospice facility in Tucson, Arizona. She was 74 years old.

I have a Strange Horizons column due in a few days, and I'm going to scrap what I was working on and instead write about Russ, so I'm not going to try to say anything very coherent here. Russ was extraordinary. I've had every reaction it's possible to have to a piece of writing with her work, at one point or another, I think. When I first encountered "When It Changed" and The Female Man, I was in high school and they terrified me in a way that just about nothing ever had -- I had always unconconsciously thought that I was the default audience for books: me, the white guy. Suddenly I was reading something where I didn't think I was the default audience; not only that, the people in these stories who were like me were despicable. Later, I would learn to read Russ a bit better, and come to find her short stories especially to be works of great power and art. I returned to The Female Man in adulthood and found it fascinating and brilliantly conceived and written; still unsettling, too (for good and bad reasons. Russ herself later condemned some of her truly awful portrayals of trans people).

But it wasn't a linear path to enlightenment. In the early days of this blog, I wrote a post about We Who Are About To... that was a perfect example of How To Miss The Point. It's the only post that I remember going back years later and adding a prefatory note to basically denounce myself -- I've written plenty of things here that I later came to think of as questionable, wrongheaded, incomplete, obtuse, or just plain stupid. Anybody who's written as much nonfiction as I have over the years is probably in the same position, if they're honest. We grow and change, we think and rethink, we have bad days. But that post about We Who Are About To... seems to me just so blatantly, utterly wrong that I couldn't let it stand without some correction, especially because I think part of the reason I misread it is that even then -- even now! -- Russ's work is strong enough to really get to me.

I hope I've progressed enough through various experiences and discussions over the last five or six years that I won't make quite as blatant a misreading of Russ's work as I did with that novel, but who knows. In a 2009 post on Russ's extraordinary story "My Dear Emily", I said that I had "a passionate admiration for some [of Russ's] individual short stories and an inability to appreciate many of the novels". I think I was still feeling guilty about the We Who Are About To... post, and I think I overcompensated a bit (I don't find the reasons I gave in the following sentences there convincing now), but it is certainly true that I haven't connected with most of her novels with the same awe and passion as I have for her short fiction, but my most recent re-reading of The Female Man made me think that Joanna Russ is still teaching me how to read her, and how to read the world.

I didn't start reading her nonfiction until five or six years ago, but How to Suppress Women's Writing; To Write Like a Woman; What Are We Fighting For?: Sex, Race, Class, and the Future of Feminism; Magic Mamas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts; and The Country You Have Never Seen are all books I've found provocative and fascinating, partly for their individual insights, and partly because of the way they show Russ's mind at work -- she is someone whose ideas kept evolving (which is somewhat different from simply changing), and it's exciting to follow her explorations.

The Country You Have Never Seen, especially, is probably best read in conjunction with Farah Mendlesohn's truly excellent anthology On Joanna Russ, because it's helpful to think about Russ's reviewing within certain contexts (Edward James's essay in Mendlesohn's anthology is very useful for that, as is Diana Newell & Janea Tallentire's essay on Russ and Judith Merril).

I'm just rambling. Really, we should all just spend some time reading Russ right now. Here are some links:

27 April 2011

Picked by Christopher Shinn

When I saw Christopher Shinn's new play, Picked, in New York last week, I had no intention of writing about it. Chris and I were at NYU together for a couple years, we've stayed in touch a bit over the last decade, and I've enjoyed following his career. I don't like writing about friends' work, because anything short of "It's the most perfect and brilliant piece of writing since the invention of the alphabet," feels in some way like a betrayal.

But most of the reviews for the play have been so shallow and superficial that I just want to line up the New York theatre reviewers and whack them all upside the head. Maybe not all -- Ben Brantley's review in The Times is thoughtful and intelligent. Beyond that review, though, it's thin pickings.

I'm not looking for positive reviews -- sure, I liked the play, I like Chris, I would like the world to agree with me on both points. But I'll take a thoughtful and insightful negative review over a vapid positive review any day. Most of the reviews I read of the show were vaguely negative, sort of middling. But the reasons they offered for their vague negativity and their middling were banal, suggesting the reviewer didn't really pay a whole lot of attention. And the positive reviews weren't really much better. (No, I'm not going to link to them; they were too enervating to make me want to seek them out again. You, too, can use Google if you're curious.)

I didn't take notes and I didn't go in thinking I'd write about the show, so this is just a collection of remembered impressions after one viewing, not a review. I feel compelled to say something to acknowledge the complexity of the play, and the complexity of my response to it (both good and bad), because I haven't seen enough other people do so yet.

26 April 2011

Sandman Meditations: Finishing Up A Game of You

I had to skip a week of Sandman meditating because of a billion other commitments (you might have noticed this here blog has been quiet...), but the column is back this week with some thoughts on the final chapter of A Game of You.

I try to avoid looking at any response to the columns, including the comments sections, because I discovered early on that if I pay much attention to what folks are saying about the columns, I then start tailoring what I write to those responses. And for various reasons, with this particular project I don't want to do that.

I have to admit, though, I loved this tweet from Neil Gaiman:

I promise that whenever I come to an end with The Sandman, I'll write a column that looks back over this whole strange endeavor, because I've really pushed myself to write these pieces quickly and as a kind of first response, without a whole lot of reflection, which means, I'm sure, some of the columns are just barmy. My perception of individual Sandman issues has changed as I've read others, and my perception of the whole series has changed again and again. There are days when I think the real way to do this experiment is to go through it all once, then start over from the beginning, but I probably don't have the stamina for that. (Heck, when I agreed to do this, I was thinking I'd write one column about each story arc, not each issue! Then Jay told me what he'd really been thinking. And I, being somewhat susceptible to crazy challenges, said I'd give it a try. And as they say, I'm not dead yet...)

"A Good Style Simply Doesn't Form"

Via the marvelous blog Reading Markson Reading, some words of wisdom from F. Scott Fitzgerald to his daughter:
A good style simply doesn’t form unless you absorb half a dozen top-flight authors every year. Or rather it forms but instead of being a subconscious amalgam of all that you have admired, it is simply a reflection of the last writer you have read, a watered-down journalese.
Fitzgerald's letter includes some recommended books, and blogger Tyler Malone follows up with a letter from David Markson to his own daughter offering a list of some favorite books. Great stuff.

25 April 2011

A Lost Balloon

Colson Whitehead:
I can't blame modern technology for my predilection for distraction, not after all the hours I've spent watching lost balloons disappear into the clouds.

14 April 2011

Dystopia on Stage: Caryl Churchill's Far Away

The good people at Tor.com asked me to contribute a post about the playwright Caryl Churchill for Dystopia Week, and I was thrilled to be able to oblige them with "Dystopia on Stage: Caryl Churchill's Far Away".

Here's a taste:
Most people don’t often think of playwrights as science fiction and fantasy writers, and SF doesn’t really exist as a genre in the theatre world in the same way it does in the world of print and cinema. Yet from its earliest incarnations, theatre has reveled in the fantastic, and many of the greatest plays of all time have eschewed pure realism. Something about the relationship between performers and audiences lends itself to fantasy.

The British playwright Caryl Churchill has written a great number of extraordinary plays, many of them enlivened by impossible events. Churchill is a staunchly political writer, a writer who seeks to challenge audiences’ complacencies about the real life of the real world, but flights of imagination give resonance to her unblinking view of reality’s horrors, using the unreal to probe the deep grammar of reality.
Continue reading...

04 April 2011

The Carol Emshwiller Project

Blogging here has been light-to-nonexistent recently because I've been swamped with work, much of it delightful, including creating a very special blog: The Carol Emshwiller Project.

Carol Emshwiller turns 90 on April 12, and there are lots of celebrations going on. We'll be posting all sorts of things to the blog, especially on the 12th itself, and anyone is welcome to contribute, either by writing on your own site or submitting something to me via email. Anything celebratory is welcome, from long and insightful considerations of Mrs. Emshwiller's oeuvre to a few sentences of joyful best wishes. Write a song, make a video, create fanfic!

To learn more about Carol Emshwiller and her work, check out the site. And be sure to stop by on the 12th to share your joy in our cause.