A Decade of Archives 9: 2004

This is the ninth 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.

2004 was the first full year of The Mumpsimus. It was also the year with the largest number of posts: 319. (These days, I'm able to get out about 100 or so in a year.) And it was the year when a relatively large number of people began to notice what was going on here. That initial attention is what made me think this was not, perhaps, just a useless lark. A lark, yes, and largely useless, yes, but maybe not completely so...

The year began with a post about returning: I hadn't paid a lot of attention to the site at the end of 2003, having written one post in December and none in November. The first paragraph of that post indicates that I was still thinking of this as a site about, primarily if not exclusively, science fiction. The reason for my absence, I said, was, "my life has been busy and I haven't been reading nearly as much SF as I would like."

I made up for the absence quickly, with numerous posts, some of them with real substance. The first was a comparison of Sergei Bondarchuk's film of War and Peace with Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies. The rest of January 2004 covers most of the major topics that the site would continue to explore for the next 9 years: a review of a novel by a writer not known as a genre writer (Genesis by Jim Crace); a plea for a writer who deserves more attention (Judith Merril); a naive but (surprisingly!) not entirely embarrassing post on sexism and reading; somewhat literary theory-ish posts on characterization and narrative (which, despite their naivety — my education in lit theory was entirely autodidactic [read: haphazard, shallow] at that point — are still recognizably in the direction of ideas I now hold); a review of Lucius Shepard's extraordinary 9/11 story "Only Partly Here"a look at Tim Burton's movie Big Fish; a mention of one of my favorite writers, David Markson; and, finally, a post that mentions Samuel Delany's Dhalgren in the context of a discussion of the baleful influence of the 3-act structure for screenplays. Clearly, it was winter in New Hampshire and I needed something to keep my mind occupied other than just teaching high school!

The rest of the year goes on in a similar manner. I hadn't look back on it all until now, and was a bit scared to — I haven't been thrilled with a few of the later years on the whole, so had no reason to assume the earliest years were of any value whatsoever. There's drivel, certainly, but also good stuff, at least in comparison to a lot of what came later.

Looking back, you may note occasional reference to comments, and then see there are no comments there. That's because it took Blogger quite a while to offer a native commenting system, and so I used a couple of different ones, always seeking one that wasn't completely awful. Once Blogger added theirs, I went with it, though I dithered back and forth throughout early 2005 because what Blogger originally offered was extremely rudimentary (it's still pretty rudimentary, but functional). In the end, though, I went with it because the other commenting systems were just too buggy. The downside was that all the comments from 2003 to the last week of March 2005 were lost.

March is the month when the blog became something more than just a time-wasting activity for a handful of random people across the internet. There were 36 posts that month (second most for the year, after June's 40 posts), and one of them brought in more traffic than I could ever have imagined: a relatively brief consideration of Neil Gaiman's story "Bitter Grounds". You can guess what happened. Neil somehow found out about it, liked seeing some attention for a story he was fond of but which had been eclipsed in notice by one of his other's that year, and mentioned it on his blog. Though the site stats from 2004 are now lost, I remember the hits topping out at about 7,000 unique visitors on one day. It was pretty terrifying, actually, because I was used to 50, 60, 100 hits per day, and since most of those, I figured, were people uninterested in what was going on here, I was able to tell myself that I was mostly writing into a vacuum. (Mostly but not entirely, because I'd gotten some emails from readers, including one writer who thought I was not entirely accurate in perceiving all there was to perceive within his book. More on that in the next post.) A lot of people didn't stick around, of course, but some did. Suddenly, I had an audience. It was a strange feeling! The audience had expectations, and I did my best to try to figure out what those expectations were and meet them. That was useful and necessary for a while, but eventually I also realized I was deforming the blog by paying too much attention to all that. The only way I could keep it going was to keep being weird me, writing about what I felt like writing about at particular moments. This was also a valuable lesson of gaining an audience: if all your effort goes into maintaining that audience, rather than sticking to the peculiar, idiosyncratic traits that got you an audience in the first place, then your writing becomes hollow, mechanical, forced, lifeless. I am grateful for having had the opportunity to learn that viscerally.

In 2003, Colleen Lindsay and Jeff VanderMeer gave me the sense that this endeavor wasn't useless or invisible, but it was Neil Gaiman who, inadvertently, gave me the push to take it seriously. (Thanks, Neil!) And I still think "Bitter Grounds" is among his best writing, a wonderful, complex story.

There's a lot I could pull from 2004. It was the crucial year, the defining year, the year that provided the energy for everything that came later, good or bad. Here are just a few of the posts that seem particularly worth pulling out of the dustbin for one reason or another:

  • A post I continue to think back on with great fondness is this one about Jay Lake's very short story, "The Redundant Order of the Night". Jay got a great kick out of it because the post is longer than the original story. Well, I had things to say. This year, Jay was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He's been writing about it honestly, thoughtfully, painfully, humorously, wonderfully. I don't have words for all the complex feelings his cancer writings have provoked in me. I can say thanks, though. Thanks for writing, and for continuing to be you. Thanks for continuing.
  • I wrote a lot about Alan DeNiro's story "Tetrarchs", too, but it's a longer story than Jay's, so my post is not of its length. Alan's second short story collection, Tyrannia and Other Renditions, will be released by Small Beer Press in October (just in time for my birthday! How clever!). "Tetrarchs" is still available at Strange Horizons, and still very much worth reading.
  • A few months after writing about "Tetrarchs", I interviewed Alan. Previously, I had interviewed K.J. Bishop, whose novel The Etched City I continue to admire. Later, I interviewed the great and glorious Cheryl Morgan, who has only become more interesting and marvelous since then. And then even later in the year, I interviewed Paolo Bacigalupi and Sonya Taaffe. It's fun to look back on these conversations, since we've all gone on to so many different things in the subsequent years.
  • 2004 marked the 100th anniversary of the death of Anton Chekhov, one of my personal gods, one of the absolutely essential writers. I tried to help people who are unfamiliar with Chekhov find a way into his huge oeuvre with "Anton Chekhov, An Introduction" (clever title, that). I'd do it differently today, of course, but not necessarily better, and it serves its purpose well. The one big addition to translations and biographies of him in English are the ones by Rosamund Bartlett — her Life and Letters is the best collection of Chekhov's letters in English, Scenes from a Life is an interesting and worthwhile biography, and About Love and Other Stories is an excellent little introductory collection. I should also note that the person who introduced me to Chekhov, Carol Rocamora, has put together a magnificent book, Anton Chekhov: A Life in 4 Acts, which tells the story of Chekhov's life through excerpts from his writings and letters. It's a wonderful book, and I hope to write about it here in more depth eventually. I also wrote a post on "Chekhov and Perception".
  • I've been interested in the writings of M. Rickert nearly from the first — I missed her first few published stories, but have never missed one since (at least that I know of). I wrote about "Many Voices" in March 2004, then in August wrote a long exploration of a story that has often perplexed readers and still stands, for me, as among the best Mary has ever written: "Cold Fires". It was a great pleasure for me to later be on the Shirley Jackson Award jury that gave an award to Mary for her story "The Corpse Painter's Masterpiece". (In 2005, I also wrote about her story "Anyway". I also interviewed her for The Internet Review of Science Fiction, which has since disappeared. It's been a while since I wrote about one of Mary's stories. I should remedy that.)
  • Bittersweet Creek remains, to date, Christopher Rowe's only short story collection, and is notable purely for that fact alone, as he is a tremendously thoughtful and original writer. I've heard him read from excerpts of a novel in progress that has me all but jumping in my car, driving south, and sticking a gun to his head to make him finish. (Alas, I am generally a pacifist, and don't own any guns that shoot, so he'd likely just laugh. As he should.) I reviewed another of the excellent Small Beer Press chapbooks that year, Richard Butner's Horses Blow Up Dog City, for SF Site. It's a shame these books are now out of print.
  • I wrote about Sarah Kane's plays just before Halloween 2004, which seems appropriate. In 2009, I would write at more length about Kane, Blasted, and horror for Strange Horizons.
  • In November, I sang the praises of one of my favorite books about writing: Maps of the Imagination by Peter Turchi.
  • I write a lot about teaching, since it's been a central part of my life for the last 15 years. In 2004, I wrote about "Teaching Science Fiction in High School" and, in a return to writing about Neil Gaiman, "American Gods in a High School Classroom". I look back on the latter with amazement — I was very lucky to have a supportive, encouraging administration, because there are not a lot of high school classrooms where you could get away with using American Gods.
  • My December post on Kelly Link's story "Stone Animals" has been one of the most popular on the site, mostly because the story is in at least one anthology used by a lot of college teachers, and befuddled students often find their way here thanks to the Google.
  • What I love best about the post on the film The Road to Wellville is its title: "Boobs and Poop".
And so 2004 came to an end. It was the annus mirabilis.