30 June 2011

Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune


Most people my age have never heard of Phil Ochs, a singer-songwriter of the 1960s who, for a brief time at least, was as prominent in the folk music world as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Ochs's early work was mostly very topical (his first album was titled All the News That's Fit to Sing), and his later, less-topical songs never really caught on beyond Ochs's already-established audience, many of whom wanted him to return to recording songs with only an acoustic guitar for accompaniment. His later years were marred by alcoholism and mental illness, and by the time he hanged himself in 1976, at age 35, he was remembered -- if he was remembered at all -- as a relic of the previous decade.

But when I was growing up, Ochs was famous in our house. As a radio DJ in Massachusetts in the mid-60s, my father almost lost his job because of an Ochs song called "The Ballad of William Worthy". My father was no bomb-throwing radical -- he always voted for Republicans, including Nixon, and moved on from radio work to owning a gun shop. But he was fiercely anti-authoritarian, and I expect what appealed to him about protest music was what had appealed to him about early rocknroll: it annoyed and frightened people of his parents' age.

"The Ballad of William Worthy" tells the story of a reporter who defied the U.S. State Department's travel bans on China and Cuba. Worthy's case was an important early one for famed civil rights lawyer William Kunstler, and was in the headlines long enough to grab Ochs's attention. The song included this chorus:

William Worthy isn't worthy to enter our door
Went down to Cuba, he's not American anymore.
But somehow it is strange to hear the State Department say
You are living in the free world, in the free world you must stay.

It's a fun, catchy tune, and one day my father played it on the radio. A lot of listeners were upset, and expressed their distress to the station in letters and phone calls. I expect some advertisers were none too pleased, either. My father promised not to do it again.

29 June 2011

Someone is Wrong on the Internet, and It's Me!

One word can change everything.

Take, for instance, my latest Sandman Meditations column at Gestalt Mash. It now begins with this note:
UPDATE: A portion of this essay is based on a misreading. Not just a questionable interpretation or one of my more idiosyncratic reveries — no, literally a misreading, and one I did not learn about until after my mistake was already public. Please see the note at the end.
As you'll see if you go and read the piece, my eyes were blind to the word "it" in a speech bubble. A little word, not the sort you might expect to cause major problems, a simple pronoun, no big deal.

But the presence or absence of that it determines the meaning not just of some events, but of the motivations of the protagonist of the story.

This is further confirmation of Mark Twain's great insight that "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning."

When the mistake was pointed out to me, my first reaction was, "No! It's not possible! I'm right, dammit!" I grabbed Fables & Reflections and went straight to the page where I knew the evidence of my righteousness waited. I noted the page and panel number, I started typing the exact words in the speech bubble ... and then saw it. Literally. It.

And then I laughed.

Because if you're going to be wrong in public, it's good to be flagrantly, obviously, and incontrovertibly wrong. That's my motto. I should write it on a t-shirt.

Or maybe I could write something simpler on a t-shirt: "It matters."

27 June 2011

Paris Review 197

The latest issue of The Paris Review includes not only fiction by Jonathan Lethem, Roberto Bolaño, David Gates, and Amie Barrodale along with poetry by, among others, Frederick Seidel and Cathy Park Hong, but it also includes interviews with Samuel R. Delany and William Gibson.

An excerpt to whet your appetite:

DELANY
Gide says somewhere that art and crime both require leisure time to flourish. I spend a lot of time thinking, if not daydreaming. People think of me as a genre writer, and a genre writer is supposed to be prolific. Since that's how people perceive me, they have to say I'm prolific. But I don't find that either complimentary or accurate.

INTERVIEWER
Do you think of yourself as a genre writer?

DELANY
I think of myself as someone who thinks largely through writing. Thus I write more than most people, and I write in many different forms. I think of myself as the kind of person who writes, rather than as one kind of writer or another. That's about the cloest I come to categorizing myself as one or another kind of artist.

And another:

INTERVIEWER
Do you think of your last three books as being science fiction?

GIBSON
No, I think of them as attempts to disprove the distinction or attempts to dissolve the boundary. They are set in a world that meets virtually every criteria of being science fiction, but it happens to be our world, and it's barely tweaked by the author to make the technology just fractionally imaginary or fantastic. It has, to my mind, the effect of science fiction.

Readercon Schedule

I just got my schedule for Readercon events, so for folks attending, here's a preview of some of the fun (updated July 6):

Friday July 15 
11:00 AM   The Readercon Classic Nonfiction Book Club: The Jewel-Hinged Jaw.
Matthew Cheney, Elizabeth Hand (leader), David G. Hartwell, Barry N. Malzberg, Chris Moriarty.
Matthew Cheney's introduction to the most recent edition of Samuel R. Delany's The Jewel-Hinged Jaw (Wesleyan University Press, 2009) makes the case for the importance of this critical work: "Since 1977, when The Jewel-Hinged Jaw appeared, it has been impossible for anyone writing seriously about the nature and purpose of science fiction to ignore the ideas of Samuel Delany. Disagree with them, yes. Take a different approach, certainly. But the ideas first expressed in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw and then refined and reiterated and revised in numerous other books [including his novels] are ideas that have so powerfully affected how science fiction has been discussed since 1977 that any analysis that does not at least acknowledge their premises is destined to be both inaccurate and irrelevant."

6.00 PM Reading. Matthew Cheney.
Cheney reads from a new short story.


Saturday July 16 
12:00 PM    Daughters of the Female Man.
Matthew Cheney, Gwendolyn Clare, Elizabeth Hand (leader), Barbara Krasnoff, Chris Moriarty.
After the 2008 Tiptree Award was given to The Carhullan Army/Daughters of the North, Cheryl Morgan said, "We've been here before," and noted that she thought many of the books on the honor list expressed "a 1970s view of gender." In the U.S., at least, third wave feminism is generally said to have begun in the 1990s. Now there's talk of a fourth wave, womanism, and numerous other variations and expansions on the theme. How has speculative fiction kept up with the progress and diversity of feminisms in the world? (Let alone the degree to which related fields like queer theory have grown.) Did the classic texts of the 1970s push the boundaries as far as we've yet been able to take them, or have the last 30 years contributed new and varied approaches to feminist speculative fiction?

3:30 PM Reading. Matthew Cheney.
Cheney reads from a new short story. [moved to Friday]

7:00 PM Wold Newton Reading Extravaganza: Special Readercon Edition. Matthew Cheney, Scott Edelman, Theodora Goss, John Kessel, Eric Rosenfield (moderator), Delia Sherman. Eric Rosenfield and Brian Francis Slattery of the Wold Newton Reading Extravaganza Series will be orchestrating an INCREDIBLY FANCY SONIC ART EXPERIMENT consisting of ESTEEMED LITERARY PERSONAGES reading prose, poetry, criticism, and other TEXTUAL OBJECTS in short bursts one after another accompanied by LIVE, IMPROVISED MUSIC. The intent is to create a kind of unbroken MOSAIC of what Readercon FEELS LIKE. Come witness our spectacular SUCCESS and/or FAILURE.

24 June 2011

Blogging the Caine Prize: "In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata"

(This is the latest in a weekly series of posts about the short stories nominated for this year's Caine Prize for African Writing. For more information, see my introductory post. The other posts about this story so far can be read at: Method to the Madness, Zunguzungu, and The Oncoming Hope. To keep up with it all, follow the Twitter hashtag #cainepr.)


Lauri Kubuitsile's "In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata" (PDF) is a delightful little story about, among other things, sex. The story is written in the style and manner of a comic folktale, its characters cartoonish and its situations amusingly absurd. Though sex is the topic of the story, at its heart this is a tale of equilibrium lost and regained -- just about the most surefire and time-tested template for comedy.

I'm wary of saying much about this one, because it would feel a bit like trying to explain a joke, and explaining jokes is the quickest way to kill them. Certainly, there's a bit to say about the gender and labor relations in the story, there's a bit to say about the attitudes toward marriage and sex (the husbands are not, it seems, angry with McPhineas Lata because he is sleeping with their wives -- instead, they're relieved he's dead because he had such better lovemaking technique than they had and thus put them to shame; this is a refreshing change of pace from the jealous, pathological monogamy that fills the majority of stories we read and see), and there's even a bit to say, perhaps, about this being a story in the form of an African folktale by an American-born white African (I'm not the person to do that, though, being a white American with no expertise in folktales, African or otherwise).

But this doesn't seem to me to be a particularly ambitious or complex story, and I think that's its strength, and what makes it by far my favorite of the Caine Prize stories we've read so far. It's nice to read a Caine story that's humorous, and it's nice to read a Caine story that's not ponderous, thumping realism -- it's nice to read a story that has a sense of play in its plot, its form, and its language. Of the stories we've read so far, this is the first one I can imagine handing to somebody else and saying, "Hey, read this, it's worth the time."

So, hey. Read it. It's worth the time.

A Stranger Comes to Town...

Via Tempest Bradford I read the call for stories for a proposed anthology called Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations. The title and description are utterly screaming out for submissions filled with casual, ignorant, and textually-inherited exoticization and racism.

The "lost race / lost civilization / lost world" story derives from an imperialist history and view of the world, but at its most benign it's a version of the old "a stranger comes to town" story, with the stranger as the explorer and the town as the "lost" place. ("Lost" only to the stranger; to the inhabitants, it's been there all along and this "lost" talk is very odd, though maybe helpful if you're seeking to build a tourist industry.)

On Twitter, Cheryl Morgan wonderfully suggested, "What you need is an anthology full of brown people discovering the lost society of the USA. Gods of Mt. Rushmore?" David Moles said he'd already written that story with one of his Irrational Histories: "9th baktun, 9th katun, 2nd tun (AD 615)". I piped in suggesting Zakes Mda's Cion, a marvelous book about a South African who comes to the U.S. in 2004 and discovers it to be full of strange rituals and bizarre, fascinating people.

And then I thought of a few more such stories, and came up with a potential and vastly incomplete reading list for potential contributors to Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations, should they desire to try to avoid unfortunate implications in their stories. So, in addition to David's story and to Cion, I would suggest...

Lists can get overwhelming, so I'll stop there, with five books of fiction and five of nonfiction. Any one of those books would be informative for somebody trying to write about strangers and towns, I think, and a few of them together might create some interesting resonances.

I'm pretty ignorant of Asian fiction and histories, so that's an obvious lack in the list.

Any suggestions to add to my list are welcome, and I'd especially love to learn about books that expand and complexify our understandings of civilizations we might otherwise consider "lost".

21 June 2011

Elsewhere

I've got a couple of new pieces elsewhere:

At Tor.com, "Mr. Modesitt & Me", a personal essay in honor of the 20th anniversary of L.E. Modesitt's The Magic of Recluce. An interview I did with Lee for the anniversary will be posted later this week.

And after a week's break, I'm back with a new Sandman Meditations column (the 41st!), this one on "Parliament of Rooks".

Also, I'm not the only one writing an issue-by-issue chronicle of The Sandman -- fellow Caine Prize blogger The Oncoming Hope is doing so as well. Check it out!

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Books


The folks at NPR are asking for summer suggestions of "The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Books", from which they will compile a final list.

There are 1,850 comments and counting right now. Plenty of the sorts of books that have inhabited such lists for decades (The Foundation Trilogy, Dune, Stranger in a Strange Land, Lord of the Rings, etc.), but also lots of idiosyncratic choices, which is, I think, exactly what such a list should get -- indeed, I would love them to get so many eclectic comments that it's impossible for a list of fewer than 534 titles to be created from it.

In that spirit, I submitted two lists:
The Odyssey by Homer
Hamlet by Shakespeare [though, on reflection, I think if I were to do it again I'd put Twelfth Night here]
The Double by Dostoyevsky
The Castle by Kafka
Orlando by Woolf

The Course of the Heart by M. John Harrison
We Who Are About To by Joanna Russ
The Return to Nevèrÿon series by Samuel R. Delany
The Iron Dream by Norman Spinrad
The Affirmation by Christopher Priest
Since those two lists are so obviously inadequate and incomplete, I thought about making more -- lists of books not originally written in English, lists of books only by x,y,z type of person, lists of books starting with the letter M, etc. When it comes to lists, two is not enough, and neither is infinity.

But I very much enjoyed fantasizing about what would happen in the brain of someone who sat on a beach through the summer and read all of those books...

17 June 2011

Blogging the Caine Prize: "What Molly Knew" (and a bit of a rant about Nice Writer Fiction)

(This is the latest in a weekly series of posts about the short stories nominated for this year's Caine Prize for African Writing. For more information, see my introductory post. The other posts about this story so far can be read at: Method to the Madness, Africa is a Country, and The Oncoming Hope. To keep up with it all, follow the Twitter hashtag #cainepr.)


Tim Keegan's "What Molly Knew" (PDF) tempts us toward reading it as allegory -- indeed, some of the other bloggers have read the story that way, and I expect it is its allegorical possibilities that landed it a nomination for the prize (it has few other distinguishing virtues that I can see), but I resist granting it many layers of meaning because I find the unallegorized story and its characters clunky, forced, and utterly unconvincing.


It may be that Tim Keegan intended his characters to stand for various tendencies within South African society and history; this would at least partly explain why they feel to me like wind-up dolls. Molly is the suffering, abused wife who doesn't have the will to leave her nasty, brutish husband, Rollo. Sarah is Molly's daughter, politically progressive and generous and good and lovely and apparently abused or raped by Rollo when she was young. Tommy is her mixed-race husband ("more black than white, to judge by his appearance"), an ANC member and the target of all suspicions and slanders by all white people. The story begins with Tommy calling Molly to tell her that Sarah has been shot and killed, and it ends when Molly finds a letter buried behind her house, a letter from Sarah to Rollo saying she's coming over with Tommy to confront Rollo and get an apology from him, or else she's going to the police. We can assume from this that Rollo was the person who shot her. Molly burns the letter and continues making excuses in her mind for Rollo's various abuses.


This is Nice Writer Fiction. Tim Keegan clearly does not like racism or domestic abuse. We, too, do not like racism or domestic abuse, and so we can read the story and feel all the proper emotions. Nasty Rollo! Poor, deluded, weak Molly! Good Sarah! Wronged Tommie!


Perhaps such stories are useful in elementary schools as ways to socialize children and teach them Important Moral Lessons, but Nice Writer Fiction is nauseating not just because dully good intentions lead to numb, static writing, but because it simplifies and panders.

16 June 2011

Hear Solaris in a New Translation

As reported in The Guardian (via The Literary Saloon), esteemed translator Bill Johnston has completed the first Polish-to-English translation of Stanislaw Lem's novel Solaris. The existing English translation is actually a translation from the French translation, and as such is barely an approximation of Lem's style or, in some cases, meaning.

Johnston's translation is currently available as an audio download from Audible.com and will be available as an ebook in 6 months. Lem's family say they would love to see it as a book, but, Lem's wife said, "Currently this is impossible due to legal issues, but recognition of the new translation might persuade the publisher to rethink their position."

What can the publisher's position possibly be? "We like to keep this inaccurate translation of this writer's most famous book in print because it would take too much effort to do otherwise..." or "What do translators and a writer's family know?" or "Really, do you think English-language readers care about a translation? All they want is a good story! Go back to your hovels, you nincompoops! Publishing is a business!"

I'm probably slandering them. I'm sure it's all very complicated and legalistic, and of course they would do the right thing if they could do the right thing but they can't do the right thing because there are laws and contracts and copyrights and all that jazz.

In the U.S., the publisher of Solaris is Mariner Books, a division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and in the U.K. it is Faber & Faber. Please put on your hoping caps and direct your hopes toward them in the hopes that they will hopefully do whatever needs to be done legally to bring Bill Johnston's translation into actual print. This would not only give English-language readers a more accurate view of the novel itself, but would, perhaps, lead the publishers to put a new cover on the book and not force us to remember that dreadful Steven Soderbergh film of it.

Meanwhile, we can at least be grateful that Criterion keeps their edition of the Tarkovsky movie in good shape, with a new high-definition transfer and a beautiful new cover. Again and again, Criterion produces my commodity fetish-objects of choice. (One could argue, I suppose, that Lem didn't like the Tarkovsky film and also didn't like the English-from-French translation of the novel, and therefore because the film is a work of genius, the original translation must be, too. One could argue this, but one would be demonstrating blithering idiocy.)

13 June 2011

An Important Clarification


I stopped by the University library yesterday to take a look at the latest issue of American Literature because it includes not only some interesting essays about Samuel R. Delany, a fellow I've written about a bit myself, but also a fabulous essay by Aaron Bady, "Tarzan's White Flights: Terrorism and Fantasy Before and After the Airplane".

In this essay, there is what may be my favorite statement-required-by-a-rights-holder evah (as they say). It accompanies a drawing by Robert Baden-Powell, author of Scouting for Boys, that appeared in the Daily Mail in 1938 and is titled "Policeman Aeroplanes":
Reproduced by kind permission of the Scout Association Trustees. The Scout Association does not endorse Mr. Bady's article or the use of air power against civilians.
So relieved to have that cleared up!

The cover for this issue of American Literature, by the way, reprints the famous August 1928 cover of Amazing Stories. If Duke University Press, the journal's publisher, were to sell posters of this cover, I would buy one in a second, because seeing Amazing Stories on the cover of American Literature gives me irrational, childlike joy.

11 June 2011

Blogging the Caine Prize: "Butterfly Dreams"

(This is the latest in a weekly series of posts about the short stories nominated for this year's Caine Prize for African Writing. For more information, see my introductory post. To read what the other Caine Prize bloggers have written, see the post on this story at Zunguzungu, which is being updated as they come in, or follow the Twitter hashtag #cainepr.)

Reading "Butterfly Dreams" by Beatrice Lamwaka (PDF), I had constantly mixed feelings. Lamwaka is a Ugandan who has worked with FEMWRITE, a wonderful organization from what some of its members have told me, and so I went into the story really really wanting to like it. Certain elements caused me some problems, however, and I ended up with very mixed feelings about the story overall, though admiring some elements of it considerably.

From the first sentence ("Labalpiny read out your name on Mega FM."), it's clear the story is addressed to another character, making the narration almost an apostrophe, though the absence of the other person in this case is a psychological rather than physical one. The addressee, Lamunu, is a young woman who has returned to her family after having been abducted and forced into service as a child soldier; though she has returned, her experiences have made her unable or unwilling to communicate with her family.

The problem for me with this is that I have a somewhat irrational prejudice against stories told as addresses to another person. It feels coy. The writer knows the actual "you" is me, a reader, and so while the technique is one that is generally used to heighten verisimilitude, it affects me in exactly the opposite way -- it sounds forced and artificial. I'm all for artificiality in fiction, but I resent it when that artificiality pretends to be uncomplicatedly mimetic. The obnoxiousness of such artificiality, however, is very much in the eye of the reader -- for one of the other Caine Prize bloggers, Backslash Scott, the narration is one of the story's strengths, and not obnoxious at all.

And I'm torn here, too, because in many ways I agree that the narration is a strength, even if I personally find it grating. It is purposeful and effective -- as Aaron has shown quite well, there's a lot going on in that narration. The distances between Lamunu and her family are enacted, or at least represented, within the way the story is told. In many ways, then, apostrophizing is probably the best tactic for this tale.

04 June 2011

Thoughts for the Day: Imagination

The fact of the thing is this: We don't get to choose our teachers. If you're going to be an artist, or a thinker, or even a full person, you better be able to make yourself into something more than the shadow of someone else's bankrupt philosophies. You better be more than an obvious and predictable reaction.


----------------------

As imagination is considered a childlike, and often childish attribute, writers don’t learn to cultivate their imaginations. When writers don’t use their imaginations...state and capital do. So we arrange our white men up front and put the black men behind, parade our own pasts to the public for collective amusement—Look, I was poor, but then I wrote a book! Look, I drank too much, but then I stopped and wrote a book!—and retell the adventure stories we remember seeing on television as kids.  

Our first step is to see this stuff when we do it, to realize that we didn’t make this up. It was made up for us. The second step is to clear away as much of the mediagination as we can. And the third this step is to write, to really write from one’s own brain. Resist the “real”, as the real that can be articulated in a five-act dramatic structure with a likeable protagonist and a satisfying dénouement is not the real. Find your own imagination, and use it.

----------------------

Gertrude Stein: "It can easily be remembered that a novel is everything."

Accuse me again, if you like, of over-reaching.

The novel's capacity for failure. Its promiscuity, its verve. Always trying to attain the unattainable. Container of the uncontainable. Weird, gorgeous vessel. Voluptuous vessel.

Room for the random, the senseless, the heartbreaking to be played out. A form both compressed, distilled, and expansive enough to accommodate the most difficult and the most subtle states of being.

Musings, ideas, dreams, segues, shifts in key, athletic feats of imagination, leaps and swirls. Or small, nearly imperceptible progresses. The unarticulated arc of our lives.

Many fiction writers do not, I believe, acknowledge reality's remoteness, its mysteriousness. Its inaccessibility to us and to our modes of expression, though the novel is one of the very few good places for this sort of exploration.

Together, many novelists, now commodity makers, have agreed on a recognizable reality, which they are all too happy to impart as if it were true. Filled with hackneyed ways of perceiving, clichéd, old sensibilities, they and the publishing houses create traditions which have gradually been locked into place. They take for granted: the line, the paragraph, the chapter, the story, the storyteller, character.

I love most what the novel might be, and not what it all too often is.

Reach.

03 June 2011

Blogging the Caine Prize: "Hitting Budapest"

This post is part of a series initiated by Aaron Bady of Zunguzungu in which various bloggers will write about the five short stories nominated for this year's Caine Prize for African Writing. For more information, see my introductory post.

I think Aaron is right to say that NoViolet Bulawayo's "Hitting Budapest" fits into a genre of African writing (fiction and memoir): "the story of children left behind by their society, either running wild in perverse and monstrous ways (as in the child soldier narrative, in particular) or festering in horrible ignorance and social pathology" -- and genre is a pretty good word for it, because such stories vary considerably in quality and effect while displaying some common features. It's a genre the Caine Prize is particularly welcoming toward, as I noted in my review of the anniversary anthology of Caine winners. The paragraph about "Jungfrau" in that review applies pretty equally to "Hitting Budapest", though I think "Hitting Budapest" has more strengths.

Some of the other bloggers writing about "Hitting Budapest" have noted that it isn't much of an actual story -- it's a narrative of a group of impoverished, hungry kids walking from one part of a city to another, encountering the stereotypical Well Intentioned But Clueless White Woman, having some other encounters, dreaming about a better life for themselves, and then walking home. Stuff happens (they see a dead body hanging from a tree, for instance), but what happens isn't consequential for them. It's almost a "quiet epiphany" story, except the epiphany is displaced -- the readers are the ones who are, it seems, supposed to have an epiphany: the lives these children live are oppressive, unjust, painful, etc. It's the basic epiphany of social realism, or what gets called "poverty porn". Turn "How to Write about Africa" into a checklist and start ticking one item after another.

The problem for me with "Hitting Budapest" is the same as I had with a lot of the previous Caine Prize winners: not that these stories are bad, but that they don't offer us much more than the familiar tropes. I think "Hitting Budapest" is actually better than some of the past winning stories, because it has a strong voice that captures the children's perspectives in this terrible environment, and I particularly like the effect of the wealthier section of the city being known as "Budapest" and the impoverished section where the children live being "Paradise". The playfulness and bitter irony of naming is one of the story's real strengths, and it accomplishes a definite unsettling of expectations when early in the story we haven't quite figured out yet that Budapest is not referring to the city in Hungary. All of the children's words for places are then called into question, and so Darling's dreams of escape and happiness in "America" are poignant. The world shrinks into the children's frame of reference. (Little do the children know, they could write a bestseller!)

But is this enough? Get rid of the interesting effect produced by the naming, and we still have a story that doesn't add up to much, because the setting is sketchy, the characters are vague (we know them best through their interesting names), and what emotion the story produces is not created through the specificity of the situation but through our recognition that these are not isolated lives; that, in fact, many children in the world live just as badly or worse.

It is possible to write excellent stories of quiet epiphany -- some of the most renowned writers of short stories have done it. But there are all sorts of other ways to write stories, many of them much more likely to be affecting and effective. Young and inexperienced writers tend to be drawn to the quiet epiphany mode for various reasons, one being that it feels sensitive, it feels artistic. And it is, when it works. But when it doesn't work, it's empty and banal; worse, when applied to genuine human misery, it risks trivializing.

The consistency of voice in "Hitting Budapest", the ironic humor, the skill with children's point of view -- these are all strengths of the story. But they are linked to its limitations. Why, for instance, tell such a story from a child's point of view? It's an easy way to grab the reader's sympathy -- e.g., the "her grandfather made her pregnant" detail that Aaron discusses -- but it prevents there being any space for analysis or history in the story. We can't understand the forces at play in their lives, or the history of those forces, because children don't. It's possible for a writer to add clues and details to give the alert reader an impression of worlds beyond the child's consciousness, and that's a really powerful narrative strategy, but this story is too short and too vague to achieve that. Its virtues, then, seem to me wasted.

For other takes on "Hitting Budapest", see the links at the end of Aaron's post.

02 June 2011

"Gender & Science Fiction": The Novels


I previously discussed how I used The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction in the "Gender & Science Fiction" course I taught this past term, and promised to discuss the novels in another post. Well, here we are!

The students had to read five novels: four that we all read together, and one of their choice from a list I gave them.

The four we read together were:
Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
Wild Seed by Octavia E. Butler
Shadow Man by Melissa Scott
The list of novels they needed to choose one from was:
The Wind-Up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
Ammonite by Nicola Griffith
Native Tongue by Suzette Haden-Elgin
Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein
Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson
Life by Gwyneth Jones
China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
The Female Man by Joanna Russ
Air by Geoff Ryman
City of Pearl by Karen Traviss
I chose these texts for a variety of reasons -- the four we read together are all books I thought offered a good variety of approaches to gender, with two (Babel-17 and Wild Seed) where gender is not really at the forefront and two (Left Hand of Darkness and Shadow Man) where it very much is. The length of the books was also important -- none of them are particularly long, and because I was trying to squeeze a lot of stuff into a fairly limited amount of time, this was a major limiting factor when I chose texts. Length isn't everything, though -- complexity is just as important: the books had to be complex enough to offer us something to talk about through a few class sessions, but couldn't be so complex that we couldn't cover them in a few class sessions. Much as I would have loved to have used Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, that book would require at least half a semester of its own.

01 June 2011

Books for Men


Inspired by a list from Esquire of "The 75 Books Every Man Should Read" -- which, aside from perhaps a few other problems*, includes only one book by a woman (Flannery O'Connor) -- Emily Schultz and Brian Joseph Davis at Joyland asked folks for suggestions of books by women that men should read. The resulting list is a lot of fun, and a fine place to go if you're looking for suggestions for what to read.

(Also, you should read Ta-Nehisi Coates's commentary on it. But you read his blog anyway, so I don't need to tell you that, right?)

I'm in a frivolously list-making mood, so thought I would add and ditto a few choices, though I'm going to narrow my parameters a little...


25 Works Of Fiction By People Identified As Women (As Far As I Know) That I At This Particular Moment Think Might Be Interesting To Men Who Are Curious To Read More Of Such Things, Though Of Course Tastes Vary

  1. Empire of the Senseless by Kathy Acker
  2. So Long a Letter by Miriama Bâ
  3. Nightwood by Djuna Barnes
  4. The Inhabited Woman by Gioconda Belli
  5. Wild Seed by Octavia Butler
  6. Heartsick by Chelsea Cain
  7. The Book of Lamentations by Rosario Castellanos
  8. Love in a Fallen City by Eileen Chang
  9. The Collected Stories by Deborah Eisenberg
  10. Money Shot by Christa Faust
  11. Scented Gardens for the Blind by Janet Frame
  12. The Cry of the Owl by Patricia Highsmith
  13. A Shattering of Silence by Farida Karodia
  14. Four Ways to Forgiveness by Ursula K. Le Guin
  15. The Art Lover by Carole Maso
  16. China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh
  17. Hav by Jan Morris
  18. The Collected Stories by Grace Paley
  19. Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys
  20. Death in Spring by Mercé Rodoreda
  21. The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner
  22. Empathy by Sarah Schulman
  23. In the Eye of the Sun by Ahdaf Soueif
  24. White Walls: Collected Stories by Tatyana Tolstaya
  25. He Who Searches by Luisa Valenzuela


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*The books? What sorts? And what is this "man" being of which you speak? But of course, "75 Works of Fiction and Narrative Nonfiction Some People Who Work for Esquire Think the Marketing Demographic of Esquire Should Read" is a less sexy title.

Read This: How Not to Write a Trans Character

Cheryl Morgan has written two things you must must must read: "How Not to Write a Trans Character" and the piece it introduces, "The Bone Palace", a review of a novel by Amanda Downum. The review is comprehensive and thoughtful, using the novel as a problematic example, and so it is about much, much more than the book itself. I haven't read The Bone Palace, so can't comment on whether I agree or not with Cheryl's take on it, but the evaluation is not the important thing -- what's important is that Cheryl generously offers us a way of thinking and rethinking representations that have real effects in the world.

Toward the end, the review includes a discussion of the Sandman story A Game of You, with reference to something I wrote about it that Cheryl took exception to. I left a comment on Cheryl's post to clarify what I at least thought I was trying to say, however incoherently, but I'm not going to reprint that here because really I think everybody should read both of her posts fully -- what they have to say is way bigger than any specific story.

The hatred and violence trans people face is nauseating and heartbreaking; whatever we do, however well intentioned, that supports a social, political, legal, or gender system that perpetuates, encourages, or ignores that hatred and violence should be criticized as fully as possible. Beyond that, though, we should work toward creating a world where all different ways of being can be celebrated and enjoyed. Striving for less than that means striving for a world of limits and stereotypes, of prejudices and phobias, of policed boundaries and enforced identities. Shouldn't animals with consciousness and conscience aim for more?