12 July 2016

Nonfiction for Fiction Writers


I'm just back from Readercon 27, the annual convention that I've been to more than any other, and for which (a while back) I served on the program committee for a few years. At this point, Readercon feels like a family reunion for me, and it's a delight.

Here, I simply want to riff on ideas from one of the panels I participated in.

Friday, I was on my first panel of the convention, "Nonfiction for Fiction Writers", with Jonathan Crowe, Keffy Kehrli, Tom Purdom, Rick Wilber. It was good fun. I'd taken lots of notes beforehand, because I wasn't really sure what direction the panel would go in and I wanted to be prepared and to not forget any particular favorites. Ultimately, and expectedly, I only got to mention a few of the items I was prepared to talk about.

However, since I still have my notes, I can expand on it all here...


First, I started thinking about useful reference books and tools. One of the things I talked about on the panel was the need I have to get some vocabulary before I begin to write anything involving history, professions I'm not highly familiar with, regions I don't know intimately, etc. I will make lists of words and phrases to have at hand. To create such a list, I spend lots of time with the Oxford English Dictionary, with specialized dictionaries (and old dictionaries — Samuel Johnson's is invaluable, but I'm also fond of the 1911 Concise Oxford Dictionary), with texts from the era or profession I'm trying to write about, and with a book I got years ago, the Random House Word Menu, a highly useful book because it arranges words in a way reminiscent of the old Roget's thesauruses (the ones not arranged alphabetically), but different enough to be uniquely useful. (For that matter, an old thesaurus is highly useful, too, as you'll find more archaic words in it. My preference is for one from the late 1940s.) Finally, I'm fond of The People's Chronology by James Trager, which is a year-by-year chronology from the beginning of time to, in the most recent edition, the early 1990s. Being written by one person, it's obviously incomplete and biased toward what he thought was important, but what I find useful in it is the sense of scope that it provides. You can get something like it via Wikipedia's year-specific entries, but it's nice to be able to flip through a book, and I find Trager's organization of material and summary of events interesting. Chronologies specific to particular people can be fascinating too, such as The Poe Log.

I'm also fond of old travel guides and atlases. I still have the Rough Guide to New York City that I bought before I went to college there in 1994, and I treasure it, because it reminds me of a city now lost.  I've got a couple editions of Kate Simon's New York Places & Pleasures. (For London, I have a 1937 edition of William Kent's Encyclopedia of London.) Similarly, old atlases are a treasure trove; not only do they show lost places and borders long shifted, but they demonstrate the ways that people have thought about borders, geography, knowledge, and the world itself in the past. See Peter Turchi's Maps of the Imagination for more on that.

That's it for the really useful reference stuff in general (individual projects often have their own specific needs for reference material). To see how I've put some of these things to use, check out the penultimate story in Blood, "Lacuna". Now for some encounters with interesting nonfiction...

One of the greatest joys in nonfiction reading is to be reading something just for information and then to discover it's wonderfully written. On the panel, I said that when I was studying for my Ph.D. general exam, I decided to strengthen my knowledge of Victorian England by skimming some of Peter Ackroyd's gigantic biography of Dickens. But once I started reading, I didn't want to skim. Ackroyd's sense of drama mixes perfectly with his passion for detail, and the book is unbelievably rich, eloquently written, and so compelling that it all but consumed my life for a couple of weeks.

Since Readercon is a science fiction, fantasy, and horror convention, I mostly thought about books to help such writers with their work. SF writers often obsess over "worldbuilding", which I put in quotation marks not only because I'm skeptical of the term, which I am, but more importantly because what such writers mean by "worldbuilding" varies. (For one quick overview, see Rajan Khanna's 2012 piece for Lit Reactor.) My own feelings are at least in sympathy with statements from M. John Harrison, e.g. his controversial 2007 blog post on "worldbuilding" as a concept and his brief note from 2012, wherein he writes: "Worldbuilt fantasy is over-engineered & under-designed. Whatever the term worldbuilding implies, it isn’t deftness or economy. A world can be built in a sentence, but epic fantasy doesn’t want that. At the same time, it isn’t really baggy or capacious, like Pynchon or Gunter Grass." The simplicities of SF are one of its great aesthetic and ethical limitations, even of the most celebrated and complex SF (see my comments on Aurora for more on this; see Delany's Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand and Pynchon's Against the Day for exemplary models of how to make complex settings in the baggy style; for short fiction, see Chekhov). Too often, SF writing seems to seek to replace the complexities of the real world with the simplicities of an imagined world. This is one of my complaints about apocalyptic fiction as well: when the history of the world we live in provides all sorts of examples of apocalypse and dystopia at least as awful as the ones SF writers imagine, what does that suggest about your made-up world?

Anyway, that all got me thinking about books that might be useful for someone who wanted to think about "worldbuilding" as something more than just escape from the complexities of reality. There are countless historical books useful for such an endeavor — even mediocre history books have more complexity to them than most SF, and analyzing why that is could lead a writer to construct their settings more effectively.

I said on the panel that if I could recommend only one history book to SF writers, it would be Charles Mann's 1491, which other people on the panel also recommended. While I'm sure there's academic writing that is richer than Mann's popular history, the virtue of his book is that it's engagingly written and thus a good introduction to a subject that can, in fact, be mind-blowing for a reader raised on all sorts of myths about the Americas before Columbus — some of which seem to have informed a lot of SF. (Really, Mann's book should be paired with John Reider's essential Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction.)

A very different approach to the complexities available in a single year is James Shapiro's A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, which I didn't get a chance to mention on the panel. It's one of my favorite books about Shakespeare for reasons well stated by Robert McCrum in an Observer review when the book came out:
The story of 1599 ... is an enthralling one that includes the rebuilding of the Globe; the fall of Essex; the death of Spenser; a complicated publishing row about the Sonnets; the sensational opening of Julius Caesar; rumours of the Queen's death; the completion of a bestselling volume of poetry, The Passionate Pilgrim; and finally, the extraordinary imaginative shift represented by the first draft of Hamlet.

Partly, 1599 is a rediscovery of the worlds that shaped the poet's development and which, in his maturity, were becoming lost — the bloody Catholic past; the deforested landscape of Arden; a dying chivalric culture. Partly, it is a record of a writer reading, writing and revising to meet a succession of deadlines.
The writer and his world, as seen via the lens of a single year.

In my notes, I jotted down titles of a few other biographies that feel especially rich in the way they negotiate the connections between the individual consciousness and the wider world: Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee and Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull by Barbara Goldsmith.

Then there is Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edward G. Burroughs and Mike Wallace, which is unbelievably rich. There are countless books to read if you want to think about how to imagine cities and their histories; this is one that has long fed my imagination.

While I've got New York on my mind, I must recommend also George Chauncey's classic Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. It's a marvelous portrait of a subculture and how that subculture interacts with the supraculture. Similarly, Graham Robb's Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century is a good challenge to a lot of assumptions about gay history.

Writers might find productive ways of working through the problems of history, subjectivity, and literary worlds by reading David Attwell's J.M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing: Face to Face with Time, which is one of the best explorations of an individual writer's process and manuscripts that I know, and one that offers numerous techniques for thinking your way out of the traps of "worldbuilding".

On another day, if someone were to say to me, "I want to write an immersive SF story in an imagined world, so what should I read?" I would be as likely to start with Noël Mostert's Frontiers as I would be with 1491 or another book. I first learned about Frontiers from Brian Slattery, and though I have read around in it rather than read it front-to-back, its range and depth are utterly apparent. It tells of the history of the Xhosa people in South Africa. It is particularly valuable for anyone interested in writing some sort of first-contact story.

A caution, though: It's important to read people's own chronicles and analyses of their experiences, not just the work of outsiders or people distant in time from the events they write about. For instance, don't miss the Women Writing Africa anthologies from the Feminist Press. Be skeptical of distant experts, even the thoughtful and eloquent ones.

Along those lines, a nonfiction book I would recommend to any writer is Edward Said's Culture and Imperialism, which I much prefer to his more famous Orientalism. Among the highly influential writers of the theory era, Said is, I think, hands down the best stylist and the least in need of a vociferous editor, so reading Culture and Imperialism is often simply an aesthetic pleasure. But more than that, it brings to fruition ideas he had been developing for decades. This is not to say I think he's always right (what fun would that be?) -- his reading of Forster's Passage to India seems to me especially wrong, as if he'd only seen David Lean's awful movie -- but that he provides tools for rearranging how we think about imagination, literature, and politics. If you want to contribute to the culture around you, you ought to know what that culture does in the world, and think about how it does it. If you want to create imaginary cultures, then you ought to spend serious time thinking about how real cultures work. There are countless other writers who can help along the way, including ones who stand in opposition to Said, but as a starting point, Culture and Imperialism works well.

For US writers especially, I must also add Mark Rifkin's Settler Common Sense, a book I read earlier this year, and which made me want to go back to a lot of 19th century American lit that I don't have time at the moment to go back to. It's a kind of intellectual sequel to Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark (another must-read), but it expands the scope beyond the black/white binary, which, as Rifkin notes, "tends to foreground citizenship, rights, and belonging to the nation, miscasting Indigenous self-representations and political aims in ways that make them illegible."

Also well worth reading are two books by Sven Lindqvist, Exterminate All the Brutes and A History of Bombing, both interesting at a formal level, but also for what they discuss. These are short books, but accomplish more both aesthetically and intellectually than most SF.

It's important to consider the ways our assumptions are constructed, and if your a writer, that includes assumptions about writing, culture, and how certain styles and techniques are valued. For that, you could do worse than read The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters by Frances Stonor Saunders, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing by Mark McGurl, and Workshops of Empire by Eric Bennett. The three books work well together, and draw on each other, creating a portrait of American literary institutions in the 20th century that are far from the objective tastemakers they sold themselves as being.

Most of the books I thought of and discussed on the panel were, in some way or another, about history, since the construction of history and memory is an obsession of mine. But I had one book about science on my list, though never got the chance to recommend it: Sexing the Body by Anne Fausto-Sterling, a book that will challenge a lot of what you probably think you know about biology and gender. (On the other hand, the book has been influential enough that the common sense about gender and biology has shifted since it was published, so who knows.) Even if you are familiar with some of what Sexing the Body argues about biology, it's valuable for the stories it tells about science and scientists. Indeed, this is something that makes it hugely useful to science fiction writers, even if they're not especially interested in gender: it demonstrates some ways that science is made.

Any writer could also benefit from thinking about the ways knowledge and writing disappear, and for that Nicholson Baker's Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper is a good, if depressing, start.

Finally, I see in my notes a list of essayists I am always happy to read: Virginia Woolf, Samuel Johnson (for the construction of his sentences), Guy Davenport, Susan Sontag, James Baldwin, Carole Maso, Barry Lopez, William H. Gass, and Samuel Delany.

There are, of course, many others, and on another day I would make completely different lists and different recommendations, but these are the books and writers that come to mind now.