26 October 2011

About (Experimental) Writing

...having the entire intellectual armamentarium of rhetorical devices at your beck and call is far preferable to having to limit yourself to tradititional narrative tropes, when writing about truly important matters. To me, that's just simple logic. 
—Samuel R. Delany

(see also, here)

22 October 2011

Film Textbooks, Take 2

On the last day of 2009, I wrote a post about choosing a textbook for the Introduction to Film class that I was then designing. I'll be teaching that course again next term, along with another film class: Outlaws, Delinquents, and "Deviants" in Film and Society. Book orders were due at the beginning of this week, so I've been looking through film textbooks a lot over the last couple of months, and especially the last two weeks.

21 October 2011

A Contribution to Schaller-VanderMeer Studies

After my own previous contribution to the burgeoning academic field of VanderMeer Studies, I am happy to christen yet another field: Schaller-VanderMeer Studies, a discipline inaugurated in ivy-covered halls with the Illustrating VanderMeer exhibit. True (Schaller-)VanderMeer Studies scholars do not limit themselves to the study of half a VanderMeer, however, and so I am happy to present here a monograph by Eric Schaller about the woman who was described by Xaver Daffed as "the better half of VanderMeer" (325).

This monograph was originally published in the Fogcon program book, March 2011.

by Eric Schaller

Something was happening back there at the tail end of the last millennium. And I’m not talking about The Gulf War, McDonald’s opening a franchise in Moscow, the cloning of Dolly the sheep, the Spice Girls, or even Bill Clinton demonstrating new uses for a cigar. Although all these probably figure in there somewhere. What I am talking about are THE SILVER WEB (1990-2002), CRANK! (1993-1998), CENTURY (1995-2000), and LADY CHURCHILL’S ROSEBUD WRISTLET (1996-date), four magazines that helped define a new course in speculative fiction. Whereas before, most notably in Damon Knight’s ORBIT series, there had been attempts to define science fiction more broadly, so much so that the old guard hesitated to call it science fiction, here the editors of these new magazines basically said, “Definitions be damned, we’ll publish whatever gives us that certain feeling we got when we first encountered genre fiction, when it seemed to open a new vista on the world, blew our collective consciousness, so to speak. Oh yeah, and we do care about language, so don’t destroy the waking dream by confusing an adjective with a unicorn.”
I notice that I didn’t mention the name of Ann VanderMeer in the previous paragraph, although her presence suffuses it. Ann was, of course, the editor for THE SILVER WEB, the first of these magazines to see print and the one that cast the broadest net in terms of what you might discover between its covers. Completists please note, the first couple of issues were published under the name of THE STERLING WEB. This quickly morphed into THE SILVER WEB but, reports by CNN pundits to the contrary, this change of name had nothing to do with any confusion brought on by the strange coincidence of Bruce Sterling having coined the term ‘slipstream’ and THE STERLING WEB, being an early proponent of strangeness and the surreal in fiction, having no connection to Bruce Sterling himself. But, back to the matter at hand, in THE SILVER WEB you never quite knew what to expect and this was all to the good. There were the short stories of course, but there were also poems, interviews, and essays. There was rock’n’roll (Ask Ann about her years playing bass with Grandma’s House). And there was the art! Great stuff, printed large, that complemented but did not repeat what was in the stories. I know of no other editor who has cared more about the relationship between art and text. Everything played off of each other to create a unique experience greater than the sum of its parts.

19 October 2011

A Contribution to VanderMeer Studies

My previous post about The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction noted that it is in beta-text mode and so quite obviously incomplete. Among the lacks are entries on either Jeff or Ann VanderMeer. I am not a contributor to the encyclopedia nor am I in any way affiliated with it, but I do have a great interest in all things VanderMeer.

Earlier this year, I wrote a biography of Jeff for Fogcon, where he and Ann were honored guests. (Eric Schaller wrote the biography of Ann, which I hope he will allow me to reprint here, but he's not returning my calls or email at the moment, probably because I suggested that for Halloween he should dress his dog as a character from Twilight.)

I hope the information provided below will prove useful to the encyclopedists and any future scholars. My only goal in life is to be helpful. Jeff VanderMeer will, I expect, deny the accuracy of some of it, but I believe such denials only confirm the truths I am here able to provide to the world...


compiled from notes found in the files of Orem Hoegbotton, including scrawls attributed to Duncan Shriek

edited and embellished by Matthew Cheney

At the tail end of America's revolutionary years, Jeff VanderMeer was born in Bellfonte, Pennsylvania, the county seat of Centre County and part of the State College, Pennsylvania Metropolitan Statistical Area. His birth seems to have caused some consternation at high levels of the U.S. government, but all the files have been classified until 2068; we do know, though, that his parents soon joined the Peace Corps and brought the child with them to the Fiji Islands. After their work there was completed, they returned to the U.S. via a circuitous route that allowed the impressionable young man to encounter Asia, Africa, Europe, Antarctica, and Long Island — experiences that would deeply influence his later fiction.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (3rd edition) is now in beta-text mode online for free, and even in this obviously incomplete form it's remarkable and fascinating. At Readercon this summer, in answer to the question of what works of SF criticism have been as influential as some of the seminal works of the 1970s and early '80s, I proposed the second edition of The Encyclopedia, a book that was not merely a collection of facts, but an argument about how to categorize the world and our imaginings of it. As such, it reduced even someone as taxonomy-averse as I to awe, and the influence of a lot of its idiosyncratic terms and templates on how people write about SF is undeniable.

I haven't had a chance to read a lot of the new material in the online 3rd edition, and have really only spent time with the Delany entry and the entry on Feminism. The Delany entry is basically the old entry plus some apparently quick updating -- its coverage of material by and about Delany after the early 1990s is vastly incomplete, but there's no reason to assume it will remain so. And it's nice to encounter again my favorite phrase from the older version of the entry: "frank and priapic to the verge of the scabrous" (I think "To the Verge of the Scabrous" would be a marvelous title for something...).

The Feminism entry, originally written by Lisa Tuttle, has been updated by Helen Merrick, a great choice for that task. (The entry on "Women in SF" does not seem to have been updated yet.)

(Tangentially, it seems to me it would be helpful to have the contributors page more prominently available. All the abbreviated names of contributors are annoying enough without hiding the page that tells us what the abbreviations mean. It would be nice in the future if the contributors' initials could provide the full name when hovered over. The people who've done all this work deserve credit.)

Just moving the original encyclopedia, with all its references and cross references, onto the internet is a gigantic task. That the team has worked and continues to work on updating it is even more impressive, since it's not like history and the publishing world are going to stop and wait for them to catch up. Even in its current state, it is easily among the most useful reference sites available anyone with an interest in science fiction. I'm very excited to see where it will go from here...

13 October 2011

Silly (Awards) Season

I'm a juror for the Shirley Jackson Awards this year, so perhaps I'm more sensitive than normal to pundits carping about award results, but something about awards brings out people's desire to complain, and they don't usually come out looking very good by doing so.

The ones people always complain about get complaints again this year -- the Nobel and the National Book Awards. The two articles I've seen linked to most frequently are Tim Parks on the Nobel and Laura Miller on the National Book Awards.

The Parks piece isn't terrible, but I'd agree with M.A. Orthofer at The Literary Saloon that it's "somewhat careless". (Parks has written a bit more thoughtfully about the Nobel in his essay "The Nobel Individual".) I certainly agree that the Nobel is inevitably in a tough position because it's supposed to be so international and definitive, and people give it almost mystical reverence, but its track record really isn't that bad. Sure, I wish they'd give it to Chinua Achebe already, and then Ngugi wa Thiong'o (so I could say I once interviewed a Nobel winner), and not be so generally Eurocentric, but it's an award based in Europe, so, you know, whatever. And I've got no problem with it being anti-American. Michael Bourne can whine all he wants about Philip Roth not getting it, and maybe Roth will get it one of these days, but I hope not. When Bourne writes, "If Philip Roth doesn’t deserve the Nobel Prize, no one does," he just flaunts his ignorance of world literature. There are plenty of other writers out there who would benefit from it more and who are equally interesting and even influential artists.

Tomas Transtörmer, this year's winner, is a safe and relatively obvious choice. Some people have complained that he's an "obscure poet", but anybody who refers to him as such doesn't know what they're talking about. He's been translated into somewhere around 50 languages, has multiple translators in English, has books in print in the U.S. For a poet, that's rockstar status. Just because you haven't heard of somebody doesn't mean they're obscure.

Laura Miller's slam of the NBA is some of the worst writing I've ever seen from her. People have a habit of complaining about the obscurity of NBA finalists, and it always makes them sound stupid. Laura Miller accuses the NBA judges in the fiction category of deliberately seeking out books that are no fun to read and are published by small presses. She accuses them of seeking out books that deserve more attention and ignoring books that are popular. "If you categorically rule out books that a lot of people like," she says, "you shouldn’t be surprised when a lot of people don’t like the books you end up with."

That's not really an argument, though. It's more like a non sequitur. At the very least, it's irrelevant.

The judges for the fiction award this year are Deirdre McNamer (Panel Chair), Jerome Charyn, John Crowley, Victor LaValle, Yiyun Li. That's an interesting panel. My interest in a book would rise if I knew those folks had thought the book was worthwhile and even impressive.

08 October 2011

Telluride at Dartmouth: Le Havre

This post is the last in my chronicle of attending the Telluride at Dartmouth program at the Hopkins Center for the Arts. Days 1 & 2 (A Dangerous Method and Albert Nobbs) can be found here, Day 3 (We Need to Talk About Kevin) can be found here, and Day 4 (In Darkness) can be found here.

The final film of the six shown in the Telluride at Dartmouth program was Le Havre, written and directed by Aki Kaurismäki. (As I expected, I wasn't able to get over to Hanover for The Kid with the Bike, alas.) It was a good choice for a concluding film because the program had been, overall, rather bleak -- enjoyable, powerful, illuminating, but seldom uplifting. Le Havre is a fairy tale and a feel-good movie, one that tackles terrifying and complex subjects whimsically and is so determined to finish on a good note that everybody's ending is a happy one. It's naive to the point of being Panglossian, but so darn nice about it that it seems churlish to complain. It's a tremendously enjoyable movie to sit through -- weird, funny, and full of scenes that will make you feel good about human generosity. It's the cinematic equivalent of "Kumbaya", but with more wit.

[Note that from here on, I'm going to talk about the whole film, including its ending(s). I don't think knowing how it all turns out will impede most people's enjoyment of the movie, because its tone from early on telegraphs that this is not a tragedy, but if you're the sort of person who hates to know anything about a movie's story no matter what, you should stop reading right now.]

05 October 2011

Strange Horizons Fund Drive

It's the final week of the Strange Horizons Fund Drive, and there are lots of fun prizes that have been donated by the various folks who support SH. But you shouldn't donate just to get a prize. You should donate because that's what keeps SH going, and has kept it going for 10 years now, long enough to make it venerable. Their staff is all volunteer, but they pay their writers good rates (think of it as the opposite of the Huffington Post that way).

Here's some useful info:

Where does my money go?

Strange Horizons is staffed entirely by volunteers, so everything you donate goes towards the running of the magazine. At the moment, our costs break down something like this:
  • Your $5 donation will cover our administrative overhead costs for one week
  • Your $20 donation pays for one poem or one review
  • Your $50 donation pays for one article
  • Your $100 donation allows us to sponsor a convention event
  • Your $250 donation is the average amount we pay for a new story
  • Your $400 donation pays for an entire week's worth of material at Strange Horizons

And now, so I can follow the progress you help SH make, here's their progress rocket:

An Autobiography in Books

Ray Russell of Tartarus Press has just put a lovely short film up on YouTube, a sort of autobiography via his book collection. Anyone who has ever felt the passions of bibliomania will find the film irresistible, and the shots of some of the rare books, especially by Arthur Machen and Sylvia Townsend Warner, are sensuous and gloriously bibliopornographic.

01 October 2011

Telluride at Dartmouth: In Darkness

This post continues to chronicle my attendance at the Telluride at Dartmouth program at the Hopkins Center for the Arts. Days 1 & 2 (A Dangerous Method and Albert Nobbs) can be found here, Day 3 (We Need to Talk About Kevin) can be found here.

I resisted In Darkness because it is a Holocaust film, and that is just about my least favorite movie genre. Nonetheless, it is a genre I'm deeply familiar with, and was the subject of the first serious film book I ever read, the original edition of Annette Insdorf's Indelible Shadows, which I discovered on my father's bookshelves when I was in high school. Soon after, I saw Schindler's List and found it deeply moving in a very adolescent way (on my part, at least, and maybe on Spielberg's). Later, I realized that Schindler's List had created a sort of emotional smugness in me -- it had made me feel good about feeling all the appropriate emotions. Spielberg is one of the greatest manipulators of emotion that the cinema has ever seen, and part of the pleasure of his action films, especially, lies in surrendering to them, allowing our emotions to be played by a virtuoso. I resist this in his films about something more serious than excitement; my loathing of The Color Purple and Munich is boundless and perhaps even a bit irrational -- indeed, I may resent the manipulation so much that I tend to perceive it as worse (cinematically and morally) than it is. At the same time, I desire great art to help us understand the Nazi era and its aftermath -- Paul Celan is my favorite 20th century poet, perhaps because so much of the power I perceive in his words derives from a struggle with (and against) the representation of atrocity. The problem is that for me it has to be great art. Plenty of subjects can withstand mediocre, ordinary, awkward, or bad art. Art that takes the Nazi years as its subject and ends up, in my estimation, to be less than great feels like a trivialization, and it infuriates me.

In any case, this is the background I brought to In Darkness, and explains why I spent the first half hour or so with my arms folded and jaw clenched -- I had pretty well decided that whatever magic spells this film tried to cast, I would resist them.

In Darkness tells the story of the final liquidation of the ghetto in Lvov, Poland, in June 1943 and of a group of Jews who hid in the city's sewers to survive. They were aided by Leopold Socha, a sewer worker, whose original goals were mercenary -- in the film, he is represented as a scavenger and thief, and tension is built early on because we fully expect him to take the Jews' money and then turn them over to the Germans for a reward. This is not what happens, though, and one path of the narrative is the story of Socha's redemption.

Had that been the primary path of the narrative, I would have hated In Darkness, because using the Holocaust as a plot device for tales of redemption seems despicable to me. (Millions of people died, and thus Our Protagonist found the goodness in his heart!) Thankfully, director Agnieszka Holland had much more on her mind in making this film than the redemption of Socha, and so the redemption of Socha becomes a powerful element of the story instead of its reason for being.

Once I saw that In Darkness was not relying on the cliché emotional moves of the Holocaust film genre, I let down my guard. The characters were complex, and few of the heroic actions unambiguously heroic. Everyone is desperate, exhausted, hungry, uncomfortable, and terrified -- these are not conditions that always bring out the best in them. We may find ourselves sharing Socha's frustrations with the refugees, sympathizing with his conflicts, his desire to be free of the people he has taken responsibility for and his desire to help them. This is a brave space for the film to open up, but it is an important one for any savior story. Inevitably, viewers want to identify with the savior; we want to think we are the sorts of people who would also be good people and risk everything to save our fellow humans. Many savior stories highlight the dangers and show how fatal missteps can be, but it is much less common for such stories to show the tensions that build between people being saved and the savior. Also, the tensions between the individuals within the group -- when they are first running through the sewers, and one woman is overcome by fright and wants to return to the ghetto, we feel her sister's rage and panic, we are pushed toward terrible thoughts: Slap her! Leave her! Save yourself! Thoughts we, if we are self-consciously decent people, push from our minds -- but they were there, and their shadows remain. We learn from In Darkness how difficult it is to be a decent person in an indecent world.

Such moments let the film earn its emotional rewards. Experience is different from manipulation. If 100 viewers of the film were to chart their emotional responses to it, there would be some overlaps at climactic moments, but there would be significant deviations as well.

I discovered I had fully surrendered to the film when a relatively small moment brought on uncontrollable tears. It was a simple moment of ordinary humanity: Socha allows one of the children, who has become catatonic from fear and exhaustion, to look up at the sunlight and taste the air. That's all. But up to that moment, we, too, as viewers have not had much chance to breathe -- we have spent a lot of time with the refugees in the sewers, our eyes have grown accustomed to the dark, we have experienced our own fears for their safety: our fears that Socha would give in to his worst impulses, our fears that the group would destroy itself from carelessness or weariness or frustration. We have spent enough time looking at the darkness that the sudden bright light is blinding, but it is also welcome.

It is not a simple emotional moment. Of course, the kindness of Socha is touching. But it's a small act compared to many of his others, ones that aren't as deeply affecting. We, too, have yearned for sunlight and fresh air. We have felt a sliver of what the refugees have felt -- and if we think about it, we know it is a sliver, a grain-of-sand-sized feeling compared to all the pain and fear of the refugees, and that opens up whatever capacity we have to empathize, but though we empathize, we know our empathy is not equal to their experience.

This, it seems to me, is exactly what films about atrocity should do. They should make us empathize and at the same time they should confront us with the inadequacy of our empathy. Like Celan's poems, they should strive for language while knowing that such experiences defeat language. The work should bear the scars of its impossibility. The work should not encourage us to feel good about ourselves; rather, it should show us all the terrors we contain.

In Darkness earns our joy in its characters' heroic acts because it is honest about what all those acts must overcome. The Nazis are a clear enemy, the metonym for evil. We are good at hating them and at rooting for their opposition. The Nazis are other than us, something we would never be, because we are good and decent. They're the most convenient, least controversial bad guys wherever they appear. Hating Nazis and feeling pity or even sympathy for their victims is a worthwhile feeling, but it is not a difficult or complex one, and it trivializes the agony when art encourages us to use the Nazi era for easy feelings proudly felt.

There are few easy feelings in In Darkness, and some you will not be proud to feel. We are rewarded with a mostly happy ending, an ending that is very much a relief, even perhaps a purgation in the Aristotelian sense. (There is even one moment that is an unexplained miracle.) The ending, at least in general terms, is true to history. Many other stories of escape from the Nazis did not end happily, despite even the most selfless heroism, and In Darkness includes that fact in a way that is more powerful than most other Holocaust savior films I've seen. Much of this comes from how well Holland shows us that the group is, at the end, a small one. We move from the relative largeness of the ghetto to an overfilled living room to the crowded sewers to, finally, one tiny section of the no-longer-crowded sewers. We saw how this small group was created, and we remember the faces of the people who were not able to be part of it.

Our knowledge of the refugees as individuals grows throughout the film, but we also know why it grows: the group becomes smaller and smaller and smaller. Our joy at their survival, then, is attached to, even dependent on, our knowledge of how few survived, and what it cost to survive.

For me, then, In Darkness joins a small group of films that represent the suffering of the Nazi era in a way that is complex in what it asks us to know and feel. The only film I've seen this year that even approaches it in such complexity is The Tree of Life, a work so different from In Darkness that I find them impossible to compare except in their effect on me as a viewer: leaving the theatre, I felt more aware of the potentials and limits of my own humanity. Stating it in such a way -- trying to capture rich emotions in ordinary words -- sounds like hyperbolic praise, but I am only pointing to one of the reasons we seek out art beyond entertainment or beyond aesthetic pleasure. We spend our lives trying to understand what it means to live, what it means to know history, what it means to feel. It's an impossible quest, but great art lets us know, at least for a moment, that the quest is worthwhile.

Such words are grandiose, so I will end instead with Celan:

above the grayblack wastes.
A tree-
high thought
grasps the light-tone: there are
still songs to sing beyond

--trans. by Pierre Joris