29 May 2013

Blogging the Caine Prize 2013

For the third year in a row, Aaron Bady has organized the Caine Prize Blogathon, but this year I have decided, after being invited to contribute again, not to do so. I'm enjoying reading what the other participants have written so far, but my feelings about the Caine Prize are too conflicted, and my feelings about my own position to speak about it even more so, that I just haven't been able to write anything that seems to me intellectually valid, despite a few days of trying.

But you should definitely keep your eyes on the discussion of the stories. Here's what's been posted so far, all on the first story in the line-up, "Miracle" by Tope Folarin (PDF).

Aaron will be doing some retrospective posts with links to all the others; probably the best way to keep up is to follow him on Twitter (but you should be doing that already!).

22 May 2013

All of Aickman

photo via Tartarus Press
Once Tartarus Press publishes their new edition of Robert Aickman's Night Voices at the end of the month, they will have brought all of Aickman's short stories back into print. (The new Night Voices will also include Aickman's "An Essay", written when he won the World Fantasy Award; his various prefaces to the volumes of The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories that he edited; and Ramsey Campbell's remembrance of Aickman.)

I just wanted to take this moment to publicly say thank you to Tartarus for doing this. I can't imagine that they're getting rich off of it. The books are pricey, but so beautifully designed, bound, and printed that I expect the profit margin is really not all that high. Over the years, I've bought most of the collections that contained multiple stories I didn't already own, and they're among the most beautiful books on my shelves. I seldom resist walking past them without touching them. Despite not having a whole lot of discretionary income these days, I've never regretted buying these volumes. Tartarus makes elegant books.

But ultimately it's the content that matters, and it is the content that causes me to write this post. Aickman classified his writings as "strange stories", and that is truly the best description of them. Sometimes they are supernatural stories, but not always (at least not unambiguously). Some of them fit somewhat comfortably into the realm of "horror stories" or "ghost stories", but also not. They are unique and marvelous and unsettling and beguiling, and they richly reward rereading, which is really my only criterion for whether a piece of writing is great.

Night Voices contains my single favorite Aickman story, "The Stains", and, according to the website at least, will also have Aickman's short novel The Model added. If you've never read Aickman, or never picked up one of Tartarus's reissues of his collections, then this is an excellent one to start with. (If you're looking for another to start with, you can't go wrong with Cold Hand in Mine. But really, you can't go wrong with any of them. Aickman rarely wrote a story that was mediocre, and never, to my knowledge, wrote one that was ordinary.)

Thank you to all the folks at Tartarus for bringing Aickman back to us in such excellent form.

16 May 2013

Race and Illicit Desire in The Great Gatsby

I don't much care for the novel The Great Gatsby (the lyricism of the writing gets tiresome, the characters are annoying, and somebody ought to take out that damned green light with a sniper rifle), but one passage has long fascinated me:
“Civilization’s going to pieces,” broke out Tom violently. “I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read The Rise of the Colored Empires by this man Goddard?”

“Why, no,” I answered, rather surprised by his tone.

“Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be — will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.”

“Tom’s getting very profound,” said Daisy, with an expression of unthoughtful sadness. “He reads deep books with long words in them. What was that word we—”

“Well, these books are all scientific,” insisted Tom, glancing at her impatiently. “This fellow has worked out the whole thing. It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things.”

“We’ve got to beat them down,” whispered Daisy, winking ferociously toward the fervent sun.

(Chapter 1)
At its most obvious level, this presents Tom as a racist and elitist, somebody obsessed with power and inheritance. He's a self-satisfied bully. It also hints at the idea that the inherited wealth and power of the "old money" oligarchs may be based on false pretenses — at least for readers now, the reference to eugenics (Tom's words evoke the work and names of Lothrop Stoddard and Henry Goddard) signals that Tom has found a particularly nasty way to justify his wealth and power to himself. A paragraph later, he says, "This idea is that we’re Nordics. I am, and you are, and you are, and— [...] And we’ve produced all the things that go to make civilization — oh, science and art, and all that. Do you see?"

Nordics. Fitzgerald didn't know it when he wrote Gatsby, but Tom was talking the language of proto-Nazism, and the "science" he referred to was the science that would in the next decade pave the way for the Final Solution.

03 May 2013

"On Quitting": We Need New Forms

Keguro Macharia has written an essay titled "On Quitting" that I've now read three times since I first learned about it this morning. So much of its subject matter sits close to my heart, and thus so much of it is heartbreaking.

I begin to wonder about the relationship between geo-history, the saturation of space with affect, and psychic health.

I want to
describe how
I come to
be here-now:

I start writing a linear story, winding, but linear, about psychic health and academic production, a story that tries to make sense of why I am resigning from a tenure track job from a major research university at the same time as I am completing a book manuscript for publication. Not only resigning but also changing continents, returning to a place I have not called home for a very long time. This, I realize, is a story about words and places. So let me start with the word that started it, or named its fractures.

As you can see from that little excerpt, it's a formally inventive essay, and magnificently so — there are sidebars, collages, fragments. It could not be otherwise.

I've loved Macharia's blog Gukira for a while, and have benefited from his scholarly articles (indeed, a year ago, two students, without any prompting from me, cited his "Girlhood in Ngugi wa Thiong'o's The River Between" in their final papers, which pleased me greatly), but this new essay is something else, something for which I have no better word than necessary. It birthed a phrase in my mind all day — We need new forms. New forms of writing, new forms of teaching, new forms of learning, new forms of governing, new forms of being.

"I am completing a book manuscript for publication." Those words fill me with hope, despite the essay's sadness and fury.

We need this essay.

We need more essays of similar honesty and intellect and poetry.

We need new forms.

02 May 2013

Recent Reading

Blogging always slows to a crawl during the second half of a semester, but I was surprised to see that it's been almost a month since I last posted here. Egads. I've hardly had a moment to breathe, though.

For now, I just want to capture a few moments of reading from the recent weeks.