28 July 2013

A Decade of Archives 3: 2010

This is the third in a series of posts leading up to this blog's tenth anniversary on August 18. In each post, I look back on one year, sometimes specifically and sometimes generally. All the posts can be found here.

2010 began here with a look at the extraordinary film Munyurangabo and ended with a look at the extraordinary writings of Wallace Shawn. During the year, I turned my general education class called "The Outsider" into a course on the idea of the image of Africa, a turn that revitalized the course for me, personally, but which faced some huge obstacles in making it work for the students. (Nonetheless, one of those students, now a senior, stopped me last term when he saw me on campus and said the course was really influential and valuable for him. So it worked for one person...) Teaching that course also led to one of my favorite posts from 2010: a look at The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner.

Lots more happened. The third and, alas, final volume of Best American Fantasy was released and sold 3 or 4 copies. I exhorted people to read Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death, and lo and behold it went on to win the World Fantasy Award. People died and I wrote about them: Howard ZinnWilliam TennDavid MarksonJosé Saramago. We had a Third Bear Carnival. One of the most popular posts in the history of the site is from 2010: "Some Good Fantasy Short Stories Online", popular because it's something people seem to Google frequently (I should update the post to get rid of the dead links, but most of the links are, amazingly, still alive). And toward the end of the year, I reminded us all that Jorge Luis Borges's first appearance in English was in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, translated by Anthony Boucher, a fact that continues to amuse and please me.

What I'd like to reflect on here, though, is a turn the blog took in 2010.

24 July 2013

Rejecting Doris Lessing

When crime writer Robert Galbraith was revealed to be J.K. Rowling, I of course thought of Richard Bachman and Stephen King, but I also thought of Jane Somers and Doris Lessing. Lessing wrote and submitted two books under the Somers pseudonym, they were rejected by her publisher (Jonathan Cape) in Britain, and when they were eventually published by Michael Joseph in the UK and Knopf in the US, they were barely noticed and didn't sell well.

The story itself is interesting and, as these stories tend to do, reveals much about the power of expectations created by a recognizeable writer's name.

Now, in a short piece at the New Yorker website, James Lasdun has revealed himself to be the in-house reader at Jonathan Cape who rejected Lessing's first Somers novel. Once Lessing's ruse was revealed, it seems he was a bit of a laughingstock, which is unfortunate — I expect most, if not all, of the people who criticized him for rejecting the book would probably have done the same themselves. (And not because it's a terrible book. I haven't read it. But because any manuscript by an unknown writer has huge hurdles to jump. Most of us are more patient, more thoughtful, more prepared when reading something with a byline we recognize, because we have a template of knowledge and expectations to fit it into. That gets magnified when you're reading from a slush pile, where, to just get through it all, you have to read quickly.)

23 July 2013

A Decade of Archives 2: 2011

This is the second in a series of posts leading up to this blog's tenth anniversary on August 18. In each post, I look back on one year, sometimes specifically and sometimes generally. All the posts can be found here.

Looking back through the posts for 2011, I felt great fondness for the year, if not for my blogging (I think overall it was one of the weaker years for The Mumpsimus. That tends to happen when life itself is busy and fulfilling, so I'm not complaining!) It was a year when I taught two of my favorite classes, Gender & Science Fiction and Global Literature; when we started blogging the Caine Prize; when Eric Schaller and I launched The Revelator, our very occasional online magazine; when I wrote, directed, and co-edited a short film without knowing much of anything about what I was doing; when I started making video essays; when I got to see one of my favorite Fassbinder movies, World on a Wire; and when I had a whole class pose for a picture whilst reading G.I. Joe comics. And much more!

When looking through the past posts, the one I ended up stopping on and wanting to think about more fully was one that grew out of my teaching of the Global Literature class: "Canonical Nationalism" from December, because though the post doesn't offer anything remotely original, I think it hits on important ideas about how we think about reading and writing, and how the categories we impose affect that thinking.

20 July 2013

A Few Words for Wallander

Some time in the winter, I fired up the Netflix machine and watched the first few episodes of Wallander with Kenneth Branagh. It was occasionally interesting, but I found Branagh's lugubrious, blubbery, hangdog acting insufferable. It's rare that I like Branagh in anything, so I decided to try out the other Wallander that was available for streaming: the 2009/10 Swedish series starring Krister Henriksson.

This week, I finally let myself watch the last two episodes available. I haven't loved a TV show this much in ages, and the final episode of series two is heartwrenching, though the last scenes are sweet and touching. I was moved halfway through the episode to send a frantic text to a friend (who, though she hasn't watched the show, has been amused by my growing obsession): "They killed Wallander's dog! The heartless Swedes!" I was, it turned out, jumping to conclusions and slandering an entire nation. But I have never been moved to send a text to anybody while in the midst of watching a TV show before.

18 July 2013

A Decade of Archives 1: 2012


A month from today, this blog will be 10 years old.

I'll reflect on that amazing, terrifying fact at that time. For now, what I'd like to do is begin a series of occasional posts that dip into the archives. Barring unplanned events, personal and/or technological failures, etc., I hope to do 10 posts between now and a month from now — posts that somehow or other explore what's been buried here.

We'll start with the recent past, though I'm going to ignore this current year, since it still feels too present.

That brings us to 2012, which began with a post about blogrolls and ended with a post about some movies.

(To update that final post, now that I've seen more films from 2012, my favorite 10 would be: The Amazing Spider Man; Cosmopolis; Detention [technically a 2011 movie, but it didn't get off the festival circuit till 2012, so I think of it as a 2012 movie]; Holy Motors; The Kid with a Bike; Moonrise Kingdom; Oslo, August 31st; Premium Rush; This Is Not a Film; Zero Dark Thirty. Honorable mention to Cloud Atlas for being so ambitious and nuts and sometimes great; and to Django Unchained and Beasts of the Southern Wild for being movies that I still don't know quite what to make of them. And there are still important movies I haven't yet seen, e.g. Amour.)

Now and then I propose ideas for posts here and don't follow through. This happened in June 2012 when I fully intended to write a series of posts about Rainer Werner Fassbinder, one of my favorite filmmakers. The series didn't get beyond the first, "30 Years After Fassbinder: Where to Begin?" I could never narrow down my ideas well enough for a blog post. However, I am right now working on a video essay about Fassbinder's first films, and with luck it will be done in time to coincide with the release of Criterion's upcoming Early Fassbinder set. I hope to do lots more writing and video-making on Fassbinder in the future, but I am very much the opposite of him in terms of my rate of production.

Of the other 2012 posts that might be worth some new attention, my own choices would be:

Those six items cover much of the sort of material that this blog has been yammering on about for nearly a decade. I wouldn't want them to be the only things the success or failure of this site is judged by, but as the best representatives of a single year, they'll do.

As we dig deeper into the archives, I hope to spend more time on a few individual posts from each year, but 2012 wasn't very long ago, and I'm still roughly the same person who wrote those posts (well, the ones I still like. A few of them were written by an idiot).

What will become of all this? We shall see...

17 July 2013

Extra Star Drives for Empty Space

As I mentioned when it was published, my review of M. John Harrison's Empty Space for Strange Horizons was a more polished version of a rather ragged, untamed essay.

For the terminally curious, here are the parts that I cut. Most of the cuts were done for reasons of focus; a few I made simply because the sense of the sentences seemed, on reflection, too hermetic (or just wrong).

To indicate context and provide some form, I've included connecting material at the beginning and end.

15 July 2013

Empty Space by M. John Harrison

My review of M. John Harrison's extraordinary novel Empty Space has been posted at Strange Horizons.

My original version of this review was a long, crazy, rambling essay. Editor Abigail Nussbaum did heroic work helping me cut it down into something for a general audience. I like both versions — this one is much more a review, the longer version is ... brain spewings. Abigail kindly suggested that I post the cut pieces here on the blog, and I will do that later this week. I think the Strange Horizons version is perfectly good for 90+% of readers, but a few folks might enjoy seeing what zany lands this great book, and its predecessors, sent me to.

Update: And here are the deleted passages.

14 July 2013

July 14, 2013

It's almost 2am where I am right now. I'm at Readercon, where I've spent the day and evening with dear friends, new friends, colleagues, great people.

I returned to my hotel room exhausted and also full of that excitement that comes from being in the presence of such folks. I checked email and the news. And I saw the verdict. All of my joy suddenly disappeared, and tears filled my eyes: rage, despair.

I can't say it was entirely a surprise. I feared it might go this way, given the laws and the evidence and how damn much this country hates— No, I'm not going to say it. I'm too angry, too sad, too despairing to trust any general statement I make right now.

I've posted the photo I put here back in March 2012, when I first learned Trayvon Martin's name. I want to remember his name, his face, his life. I want to remember how much we have failed him, before and after his death. I want something good and productive to come from this pain.

I don't know right now what that good, productive thing might be.

We must get better, we must be better. Somehow. But I don't know how.

Now all I know is this: Trayvon Martin is dead, and his killer walks free.

10 July 2013


I read these words this morning, and now they're all in my head, chatting:

Simply put, there is an unhealthy obsession among American law enforcement agencies (and American society at large) with stopping violence perpetrated by American Muslims, one that is wholly out of line with the numbers. There is no doubt that the events of 9/11 play into this — never mind that not one hijacker was American — but there is something much darker at work here as well. It’s the fear of a people, a culture, and a religion that most Americans do not understand and therefore see as alien and dangerous.

The fear of the “other” has wiggled its way into the core of another American generation.

—"US Law Enforcement Blatantly Ignores Right-Wing Extremists" by Matthew Harwood, Salon

We live at a moment when the imagination is threatened. When its possibilities are administered. When we have learned to believe that to survive harm is enough, and, sometimes, more than enough. And, certainly, given the queer-killing imaginations and impulses that surround us, the insistence “I am here” seems more than enough and, often, too much.

When I think about what has stayed with me, fed me, nurtured me, enabled me, it’s not the histories I’ve read, the reports I’ve consumed, the many articles I dutifully read and cited, or the very smart things many brilliant people have written. I return to a small cluster of names: Essex Hemphill, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Melvin Dixon, James Baldwin. I return to poets and novelists, to people whose imaginations extended mine in unexpected and still surprising ways.

In the 1970s, every lesbian was a poet, so the story goes. Poetry, Lorde teaches me, “is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.”

—"Kenyan Queer Cultural Production (in a report era)" by Keguro Macharia, Gukira

All those poems I wrote
About living in the sky
Were wrong. I live on a leaf
Of   a fern of   frost growing
Up your bedroom window
In forty below.

—James Galvin, "On First Seeing a U.S. Forest Service Aerial Photo of Where I Live", Poetry

08 July 2013

Around and About

A trio of items...

Penguin Books is, slowly but surely, bringing all of Shirley Jackson's work back into print. Earlier this year they brought back the posthumous collection Come Along with Me, and just a few weeks ago they released new editions of novels that have been out of print for ages: The Road Through the Wall (her first novel) and Hangsaman. You'll be hearing more about those here later this summer. I've also gotten confirmation that Penguin will release The Bird's Nest and The Sundial at the end of January 2014 — two strange and fascinating books that have long deserved to be available once again (The Bird's Nest is currently available in the e-book of The Magic of Shirley Jackson).

Returning these books to print has brought about some new writing on Jackson. In March, Slate published "Why You Should Read Shirley Jackson" by William Brennan; last month, The New Yorker's book blog posted a fascinating account by Ruth Franklin, who is working on a new biography of Jackson, of the letters Jackson received after "The Lottery" was published. A few days ago, Open Letters Monthly published an essay about Jackson by Victoria Best that is well worth reading, particularly given its focus on We Have Always Lived in the Castle, a book that is, I think, one of the great accomplishments in American literature in the second half of the 20th century.

There's a Bessie Head blogathon! I just learned about it, and don't have time this week to join in, but I will be following the posts avidly.

I repeat: There's a Bessie Head blogathon! Go!

It's Readercon week! I'll be there Friday through Sunday, doing three readings and one panel. Also, I recently returned to the programming committee, having resigned last year in the midst of The Badness. The convention has done an admirable job of recovering from the missteps of last summer, and I'm thrilled to have been invited back to work with a remarkably great group of people. It's always a pleasure to see so many friends, to meet new friends, and to generally revel in the entirely nerdy, readerly atmosphere.

The Guy Davenport Reader

Guy Davenport; photograph by Jonathan Williams
Counterpoint Press has just released The Guy Davenport Reader, edited by Davenport's literary executor, Erik Reece. It's a good, basic overview of Davenport's work, and a nice opportunity to review some of the highlights of that work. Davenport was one of the greatest of American writers, and a single 400-page book can only offer a brief taste of his large and eclectic oeuvre, but it seems to me that the Reader achieves what it sets out to achieve: to bring together various genres of Davenport's writing (fiction, essays, poetry, translations, journals), and, in Reece's words, "to make an argument for the extraordinary range and even, yes, the accessibility of this remarkable writer."

Accessibility is, of course, in the mind of the perceiver, and poses particular problems with Davenport's work, a fact that befuddled reviewers pointed out with every book he published. As a Rhodes Scholar, he wrote the first Oxford University thesis on James Joyce, and he later visited with Ezra Pound and Samuel Beckett, so his devotion to literature often considered "difficult" was longstanding. But he wasn't only devoted to the heights of Modernism — his knowledge of ancient literatures was tremendous (7 Greeks is a marvelous collection of translations); he not only had a comprehensive grasp of European and American cultures and histories, but also those of many other regions; and he maintained a long interest in various writers and philosophers many readers would consider esoteric, particularly Charles Fourier.

But the challenge of Davenport is not merely his wide range of references. His fiction in particular causes some readers to struggle because, though they are written in a remarkably clear and precise prose, many of the stories thrive on juxtapositions and collage. They are, as Davenport called them (following Pound and others), assemblages. (Typically eclectic, Davenport said that this collage form was influenced not only by the Modernists, but perhaps even more so by the experimental filmmakers Stan Brakhage and Gregory Markopoulos.) The fictions have no conventional plot, the purpose for including some scenes and conversations may not be easily comprehended even at the end, and Davenport had no interest in following the sorts of precepts offered by countless "how to write" manuals: action based on conflict and resolution, characters that create the illusion of psychological roundedness, etc. His interests were elsewhere: in form, style, and imagination. His stories provide another obstacle to accessibility as well: many of the best of them are about naked young men discovering the pleasures of their penises. More than one reviewer referred to Davenport's stories as pedophiliac or pornographic.

As far as I can tell, Davenport never published a single uninteresting page, which means that editing an anthological overview of his work could be easy: throw in anything, and it's great! But then there's Reece's goal of accessibility, and there the problem lies. I think he's overcome it as well as can be done, including some of Davenport's more immediately delightful writings without entirely glossing over the nature of this writer's work.

03 July 2013


a doodle by Franz Kafka
Today is Franz Kafka's 130th birthday, as Google has reminded us, and it reminded me that one of the first and most obscure stories I published was largely about, or at least inspired by, Kafka. I'd been reading the diaries and the letters to Felice Bauer.  I'd dipped into the diaries before, reading around in random order, but had never read them very comprehensively, which is a considerably different experience. While the diaries were fascinating, if sometimes tedious, I loathed the Kafka that came through via the letters to Felice. How she put up with him is beyond me. (The relationship would become clearer when I read Reiner Stach's excellent Kafka: The Decisive Years, which has now been completed in English with the translation of Kafka: The Years of Insight, a book I've just recently begun reading.)

All this reading got me thinking about narcissistic heterosexuality, fragmentary identities, and, somehow or other, the relationship of patriarchy to imperialism. Also, Kafka's great story "A Report for an Academy".

And so I wrote a thing called "Fragments" (truly one of my most creative titles!) and it was published in 2005 in Rabid Transit: Menagerie edited by Christopher Barzak, Alan DeNiro, and Kristin Livdahl. At the risk of utterly defiling this auspicious day, here it is: