6.30.2004

Science News

6.29.2004

Major World News Headlines

Gwenog Jones is...

Gwenog Jones is Wizard of the Month and Captain and Beater of the only all-female national Quidditch Team, the Holyhead Harpies.

Title of book six revealed! (I should write headlines for National Enquirer, which is headlining the "Britney Sex Tape Nightmare.")

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6.28.2004

Character, Clinton, Critics, Change

Jed Hartman asks about subtlety in regards to character in story. I personally hate spelling anything out explicitly since I don't think it necessary.

Take Bill Clinton. You can learn a lot about the man just reading his blog--things he may never state out loud. It's wonderful. Apart from human moments that I could identify with, I'd never fully understood the man as a president, yet now with this blog all the weird quirks fall into place. (Canada's "As It Happens" should come read this blog. They've had similar issues.)

As in real-life understanding of character, the best fiction provides enough clues to what's going on, so that you get a feel for the character and his actions make sense, but this means you have to be open to looking for the clues within the text.

***

Bill Clinton has a few questions about criticism that I think I can answer:

"Are these newspaper critics trying to hurt me or is it really a lousy book? I worked three years on my book and all they do is open a bottle of wine, dip their pen in acid and write a review twenty minutes before their deadline. I know them. I know these snotty nosed East Coast liberals. They've always looked down on me. I'm Bubba, the dumb Southerner, who likes Elvis. For some reason he became a liberal, but still, it takes generation for a farm boy to get his farm mentality out of his thinking. However high you rise, they will never accept you, because you weren’t born in the right place. They'll just use you when you're useful....

"They never gave my book a chance. They didn't read 957 pages. They skimmed through it. Their opinion of my book is unjustified. If they would just read it. But no, they got their opinion about this randy fat boy ready, right?"

That may well be part of it. But other issues are involved as well--some subjective, some not so subjective. Jerry Schwartz at CNN, from his first paragraph, wanted to draw attention to the fact that you were not Liberal enough (on this particular issue, at least), but Schwartz seems to offer another kind of criticism as well.

You, former President, are an aficionado of letters, and the community of letters loves you for it. However, the community has evolved a system of judging those letters, and writers use their entire lifetimes trying to master all aspects at once. There is the little matter of 957 pages, all of which are fine if they can be accounted for. Granted, Marcel Proust wrote far more, but he also spent his life doing it, which probably accounts for his building thematic power--albeit I'm not sure if he knew what was pertinent, either.

On the other hand, with a title like My Life or Remembrance of Things Past, everything seems pertinent, no? In the letters industry, what matters is how you deliver those letters. When you've used spoken letters all your life with enough efficacy to gain the White House, it may come as a shock that a group has created a set of rules surrounding letters of the written kind outside your familiar purview of politics. Writing is an art form, like photography. If you published the entirety of your family photo albums, I'm sure photographer critics would also complain although many would still flock to purchase copies.

Can a life be shaped thematically? Doesn't every little event impact who we are in some secret way? Isn't art artifice? Absolutely. Any attempt at capturing life is false. The artistic response to this is probably that we can write and rewrite our lives in a hundred different ways depending on what we want to highlight. But none of that matters a toad's fart to the general public who care only to find out anything, not to piece together and find the artistic form. But then, as Schwartz may be arguing, how do you decide what goes in and what stays out? This is the dilemma of the artist of letters, so if you don't consider yourself an artist, feel free to ignore critics. Consider it Steinbeck's first draft or a bootlegged copy of Chopin plinking out the first early notes, throwing every variation in before culling back.

***

Here are a few, related cases concerning literary matters where ambiguity--the kind that confuses--does not serve us well (all of which circles round to Clinton and character):

The first comes from "Jane Austen's Heroic Consciousness" in James Wood's essay collection, The Broken Estate, which I bought when Daniel Green railed against him. I thought Wood might have a view unique to literature, which may still be the case, so I'll keep reading, but this one stumped me:

"Austen's heroines do not change in the modern sense, because they do not really discover things about themselves."

What is this "modern sense"? At first, it troubled me, afraid someone will read this quote and think, "By Jove, fiction is not about change, after all!" when it damn well is and happily or sadly, depending on your perspective, always will be. If you disagree, take a course in human development. But Wood writes on:

"They discover cognitive novelties; they probe for rectitude. As the novel moves forward, certain veils are pierced and obstacles removed, so that the heroine can see the world more clearly."

Wait. Isn't that exactly what change is? It may be we're parsing words to pretend we've struck upon something new. Or maybe the only change Wood considers "change" is the transmogrifications found in Ovid's Metamorphoses.

In a post of a tangential topic, Emma at Maud Newton's blog--an excellent site for picking up literary news--drops a few, rare, tantalizing, perhaps throw-away words of criticism: "these days of perpetual and nauseating self-revelation."

There are three possible interpretations of "nauseating self-revelation," all of which I find problematic. If the words were throw-away or meant in a fourth and unforeseen manner, I hope Emma can forgive my using the ambiguity to discuss issues that others may actually have. The first interpretation is that any "revelation" is considered improper. But this is rather an unusual perspective coming from a literary blog. What is a story but revelation? Is it that we prefer to keep our revelations fictionalized so that we can hide behind symbols of text?

The second places emphasis on "self," in which case she must be a science fiction reader troubled by the gradual shift away from societal revelations (Wells, Orwell, Huxley, etc.) toward personal revelations. Both perspectives are necessary because both reveal our way of living. This is the least problematic of the three possible interpretations of her statement, yet still problematic when we view humans (or any animal) in an evolutionary pattern: animals' "selfish" acts all contribute to the larger patterns necessary for a successful species: the male's physical desires for certain female attributes (hips, breasts) are distinctly for ideal reproductive purposes, as are the females' desires for strength or bread-winning or whatever. All individual acts and desires feed the higher purpose of a society (yes, reproduction is the only purpose to life--all the money you save, all the technology you gather, all the revelations you make serve one purpose: a more efficacious society); therefore, any self-revelation is in fact a societal revelation, and vice versa.

The third places emphasis on "nauseating," which at first I was willing to grant as perhaps another, stronger way to name sentimentality, but then I ran across this in Bill Clinton's blog:

"I haven't slept all night. I ate 7 tacos. I eat when I'm unhappy, eventhough I'm on the South Beach Diet. I have to lose some weight. At my age I can't carry it around anymore. My back hurts."

Probably those seven tacos are nauseating to some. Life is rather nauseating. I'm prone to the same problem--if not, at times, worse--and I was pleased to see I shared similar troubles with the former President. I suppose if you don't happen to have this particular problem, it is disgusting, and you don't want to hear about it. But unless we're perfect, we are all disgusting. It's about time the world came to this nauseating self-revelation.

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6.26.2004

Genre and Writing Aroung the Blogs

6.25.2004

Notes for Interstitialists, Historians and Other Artists

Interstitial fans will be pleased to note that the latest issue of Bomb appears to use the term "interstitial" in a manner suiting to their pursuits. Chris Gilbert writes of Olafur Eliasson's work:

"[H]is recent installation in the Tate Modern's cavernous Turbine Hall, titled The Weather Project.... was a giant artificial sun placed in a mirrored and fog-filled environment that droves of people came to see and took ownership of in an aggressive, sometimes cultish manner. I also wanted to explore how the interstitial [emphasis mine] position of his work, which is both equally engaged and equally distant from science, poetry and politics, could be compared to the role that modern philosophy [once played]--the "handmaiden" or the "queen" of other disciplines."

In Eliasson's own words:

"As I use these ideas of seeing-yourself-sensing or sensing-yourself-seeing, they are about trying to introduce relationships between having an experience and simultaneously evaluating and being aware that you are having this experience. It's not about experience versus interpretation but about the experience inside the interpretative act, about the experience itself being interpretive."

There appears to be some correlation here with the interstitial as it has played out thus far in the genre--at least "interstitial" in an interestingly theoretical way, as seen in Karen Joy Fowler's "What I Didn't See" and Kelly Link's "The Girl Detective" and Kevin Brockmeier's "The Ceiling" which one might say go against the original experience of genre (a little sad that no one's tinkered around with this theory since I piddled with it last February) in order to create a new experience. This may be stretching interpretations a bit much to suit correlative purposes.

***

I also liked Eliasson's comments on history, which I also commented on in Zu-Bolton's discussion of the same:

"People tend to think that museums are only presenting the art, but in fact the ideology of display touches directly upon questions of responsibility: How do you organize history for people? How do you show the art of the last hundred years? Will the presentation be monographic or thematic? Of course, there is no right or wrong in this, and the responsible approach lies in being open about it and admitting that there is not necessarily one truthful way of showing art but simply how we choose to show it. Otherwise, it would be almost totalitarian, as if other people who had different approaches were somehow lesser people....

"Today 'stepping outside' is rightly seen to be as much a part of the situation itself as the engagement of the actual thing.
"

I might add that that does not mean that we should not attempt to step outside our inside to get the larger picture, which Elliason's work purportedly appears to do--unschooled in his forms, I'm not sure if I'd be picking up all his themes without the aid of the interview--but that we should not only attempt to step out but also look at the frame with which we view the inside.

***

Gilbert on Elliasson's art:

"The beauty of these objects seems to emerge from simply allowing their functionality to be clear. It is as if the clarity of the function dictates a certain form, and that form itself has an aesthetics to it.

Eliasson further expands on art:

"Art and its institutions are not holy areas where you step out and all rules are off so that you can do weird things that you don't have to account for. I think that having an art experience is stepping into the world, it is having reality."

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Jazz, Genre, Poetry, and the Arts

Appropriately enough, I drove out to Tobias Buckell's Writing Jam (there's another week-long jam in July that's probably worth the time to take off work--see attendee reviews from Pam McNew, Tobias Buckell (pronounced toe-BUY-us ba-KELL), Stephen Leigh, "John" Trey and Jon Hansen), listening to this tape series about Jazz: Elements of Jazz: From Cakewalks to Fusion. The series is definitely worthwhile and educational although--I may not be the best authority to judge this--the author and musician, Bill Messenger, while musically talented, is not always capable of rendering all rhythms and forms into their best mode. As they say, if you can't do, teach (the opposite may also be true as Louis Armstrong has reportedly said when asked to define swing, "If you have to ask, you'll never know."). Messenger can "do" exceedingly well, but his strength is definitely teaching, which is why I bought the series. I'm not sure you can learn as much by reading without also listening to what's being demonstrated. I'd be interested in hearing of any series that does as well to introduce its topic.

I've always enjoyed jazz but was never schooled in it--even informally. Some might fear that learning about an art's form would ruin one's untrammeled hearing for the art, but the opposite occured. My appreciation grew with new knowledge of its formation and transformation. Funny how the history of an art can do that to you. (Greg Bear and others have noted how the history of SF parallels jazz. I'd say it's true in certain aspects that may be worth delving into at a later time.)

I bought it for my father, who has listened to jazz since college when all the hip cats were snapping their fingers to it, and my mother, who had some formal training in college concerning music but jazz, at that time, would not have been kosher study material among serious scholars. Ma can get into some jazz but not many of the later forms. My hope is that the series will deepen my father's existing fondness and broaden my mother's. However, I suspect that the broadening will prove self-limiting--"self" being jazz itself.

Jazz, in various forms, grew in popularity as an opposition to current popular music and in turn became the popular form: from cakewalks, to ragtime, to jazz (Dixieland, blues, swing, boogie, big band, bop, and modern: cool, modal, free, and fusion). Rock, an offspring from the boogie branch of jazz, stole the mantle of popularity as jazz took deeper and deeper sojourns into art. You can find jazz in old movie soundtracks that attempted to portray scenes of the cool. But you don't often see it in movies today or amongst the collections of younger generations for whom jazz has lost even its underground appeal--now relegated to cultural appreciation.

So what happened to jazz?

My personal feeling is that blame lies firmly in the fervent attitude of the artier-than-thou-at-all-costs attempts to push the boundaries into a form without form. Art is sophisticated and, by necessity, requires a background of appreciation such as the aforementioned tape series represents. Jazz began by twisting old forms: Cakewalk twisted the march, ragtime twisted everything but especially the previous generation's popular music, and so on--each new twist accumulating new sophistication in methods. Messenger relates an anecdote of possible dubious veracity but a telling one, nonetheless:

On a dare in a New York City restaurant, George Cobb metamorphosed Sergei Rachmaninoff's famous "Prelude in C Sharp Minor" into a ragtime while, unbeknowst to Cobb, Rachmanioff slurped up linguini. When Cobb finished, Rachmaninoff surprised Cobb, standing over his shoulder and delivering the comment: "Nice melody but the rhythm's off." Now Rachmaninoff may have written the greater work of art, but Cobb also produced a variation that become a minor masterpiece in its own field--and perhaps Rachmaninoff should be eternally grateful to Cobb for giving his Classical work a breath of fresh air through a new and popular form.

But jazz's gradual neglect for audience appreciation invariably lead at first to profound innovations but, as way will lead to way, ultimately to boring audiences of all but the most devoted (and/or tone-deaf), playing not only with the net down but also without a ball but with plenty of racket. Miles Davis, perhaps the biggest jazz innovator of the modern age, invented the cool which was an underground hit but his innovations lead him to increasing artistic poverty, which he had to invent his way back out of through innovations closer to form. Messenger is fond of letting his audience know that whenever jazz got too far out, bloodletting its vitality, it had to return to its simple blues roots. It also got a blood transfusion by fusing with the popular form of the day--rock--creating "fusion" jazz.

Every art form has been and will be plagued by this problem: Once you dispose yourself entirely of form, you in effect dispose of art because art is artifice or form, whatever its riffing off of. This will be anathema to all the dyed-in-the-wool, black-beret artistes out there, but in evolutionary terms (and what is art but evolution?), any pathway that leads nowhere new or can spawn no further innovations (how can one vary or form the formless?) leads to a dead-end. The experimental forms of jazz are awe-inspiring once you are aware of its form, the form its varying, and the jazz standard its spinning off of. The same follows for any art. Formlessness allows no sense of appreciation except increasingly minor angles that depend largely on esoterica or, worse, on variations of the emperor's new clothes worn by the zombie of someone's lean-to theory.

All of which leads us to Poetry magazine. Some editors are rightfully bored of the "innovations" in poetry. Some are cool, but these have to be fused with rock or some form of form. I will, however, agree that the June/July issue is somewhat "soporific" as Cheney and DeNiro called it. But it may be that we are less aware of British forms of poetry (it is mostly a British-themed issue). I tend to enjoy every other issue of Poetry, and I tend to assume that poetry that doesn't ring my bell tends to be in a form that I'm either not as schooled in or is a soporific form that rings only a few people's bells. I don't need much schooling to recognize that "Cold Calls" from Christopher Logue's War Music is a masterwork melding forms across the ages, respinning Homer's Iliad into contemporary terms and terminology--perhaps, Troy has a correlation in Logue's and filmmakers' minds to contemporary 9/11 and subsequent warring (it must be said that Logue has been working on the series of books since before 1988, precluding poetic fortune-telling)--however, despite its amazing technical mastery of mixing contemporary and archaic English language structures which amateurs are doomed to immitate with a belly-flop, the content does not manages to pull me in for the full length of the poem. Perhaps reading the work in its entirety gives it a vantage of genius.

"My Father, Crawling Across the Floor" is a work of competent emotiveness--above average fare and worth reading if you're a fan of poetry, but not up to the works of emotive capability in the present issue of APR described below.

Jo Shapcott easily has the most marvelous and inventive poem here: "Hairless." I never know whether to call some poems speculative, but this definitely has that flavor of fun:

"Can the bald lie? The nature of the skin says not:...
You can tell with the bald, that the air
speaks to them differently, touches their heads....
everything
she knew skittered under her scalp
...."

Not just because it has been an industry standard have I subscribed to Poetry. I don't pander to anyone's standards because I'm told I should. Although I'm willing to give anything a shot before I agree, I tend to be leery of "classics" or "standards" and, therefore, read them more critically--but every other issue of Poetry has potent work, and that's why I subscribed, originally. What truly impresses me about the magazine's latest incarnation under new editor Christian Wiman is the dialogue about poetry: from dueling-banjo reviews, to letters debating the critical scene in poetry, to the present issue's literal dialogue between Michael Hoffman and William Logan about the British and American scenes in poetry. It's this sort of critical dynamic that I and perhaps the original instigator Gabe Chouinard envisioned for this blog which unfortunately the other critics abandoned for other projects (I hope not out of fear of its early controversy). Perhaps one day the speculative genre will embrace to a similar, open-minded view of criticism.

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Poetry in Briefs (Updated)

Alan DeNiro challenges Poetry to come up higher. I'll try to find my latest issue. (Found--more to come.)

Just received in the mail is DeNiro's atari ecologues, a twenty-six poem sequence about the wonders gamemanship of yore. The title appears to be a pun of sorts ("eclogues" being poems in which shepherds converse; however, I'm not certain how "ecology"--the other half of the presumed melding of terms--fits). This quote from the author's website may help: "The 'ecologues'... come from the almost pastoral yearning for something that incorporates both the silicon and circuit board of her video games, as well as a a transcendental element that cannot be translated coherently."

I have a great fondness for the era myself. If you've grown up amongst the age's plethora of nonsense memes, it's impossible to miss some of the many allusions. The set-up of twenty-six poems refers, of course, to Atari 2600, the biggest game machine of its time. But then, DeNiro notes implicitly, through the use of English letters, that we have twenty-six letters in the alphabet, too. Coincidence? Fat chance. (Pardon the gnomic logic.)

Some great lines here:

"Pacman could hold the key, Eating
droppings in the maze, ravenous ghosts
that only became faster when I
became nimbler. Fucked that way
...." --from "c"

"My pocket's full of the many moods." --from "d"

"Better save the fallen, perfect city!

"With what? The boy holding
out the sea with his joystick?
Imagine that generally transpired
." --from "f"

The best poem, "j," pits the afficionado against the benighted common folk:

"Reset. I won't expect endings to end--
as long as the power's on....
perhaps Lawrence Welk is the eater of worlds.
In the restaurant, a woman from the other
windowside
mouths, Loser, to me. Gives me an L-
sign with her game-over hands. Not at 13, I'm 27.
The now,
the current place bookmarked. I heartily
agree, we're all losers, goners,
husks waiting for the money to come back
."

A sample poem can be found here. You can purchase it here.

***

American Poetry Review (July/August 2004) has good stuff to strut. Adrienne Rich wins the best poem title: "There Is No One Story and One Story Only."

Surrealist fans will dig Matthew Shindell--he even includes a dapper photo of himself in the mirror next to a seal swimming head-down, peering cock-eyed into the camera (see website).

Depending on how well his "Blackjack"--a figure which appears to represent Trickster--poems hang together as a whole, Ahmos Zu-Bolton II may be destined to become the next minor poet ("minor" is actually high praise, meaning he may be collected in anthologies of his age). In "The Folklore of Suicide Bomber" and "Blackjack's Song & Dance: a déjà vu," he seems to capture our time better than either side of our ever-present political knee-jerk punditry. The lines, in and of themselves, are not quite resonant but accumulate power. Consider the latter poem:

"He could never
tell the same story, the same way

no matter what history remembers...

when storied events are logical puzzles
laid out on the moment
when time freezes over....

each telling of the story
a new lesson plan.

He learned to live with the changes,
to celebrate them at times,
when even memory occasionally works
against
what history records
."

Considering what passes for "non-fiction" these days in a history of confounding complexity that is steam-rolled into flat-cakes for easy consumption (not that we can blame the historians' attempts since we're all rather bewildered), I admire what Zu-Bolton has done in this pair. Perhaps history should be redubbed "Half-story." There's a title for someone: "History: the Half-Story," which leads one to wonder: if history is one-half (optimistic at best) of the story, can there ever be a history? If history is improbable, is alternate history a practice at the art of perpetual motion? (Matthew Cheney links to several topics on the issue.)

Hayden Carruth cuts his lines best in "On Being Marginalized":

That's what the lady said. Said it right
Out, loud and clear. Said, "You've been mar-
Ginalized." Well, thanks. "It's too bad,"
She said. Oh, you bet your freakin' elbow....
I am, looking everywhere for a bottle, not
The one with a message, but the one with a
Nice drink of cyanide. Here's to you, lady.
So long. May you choke on that martini.


Carruth has a gravelly voice that suits his poetry perfect. Len Roberts' "Letter to HC in the Hospital" ("HC" is presumably Carruth) has the most emotive punch in the entire issue. Let's hope APR reprints it online. Chistian Thompson also writes an essay on Carruth's "Contra Mortem" (a long poem collected here).

***

Bomb, a magazine of multiple arts, has an intriguing prose poem by Diane Williams, "Opening the Closing Mouth of the Woman," the title of which coveys much of the meaning. Though it opens no new territory on the matter, it is well executed: "Faustine--that is her name--is dedicated to the rammers after she has been loaded with their meaning." My favorite title is Matthew Zapruder's "Cat Radio," but the best poem is a lament played off-key from the contributing editor, Tom Healy:

Someone has toyed
with the history.
Was it you?

Events rearranged,
my good dolls broken.
Who took liberties,

sat in the chair
decided not to eat?
Who left warmth

in these sheets?
Everything here
was to stay cold.


--from part II of "Rituals of Marriage"


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6.16.2004

Shepard on Lit Discoveries, As Mentioned Earlier

Michael Bishop has a thoroughly fascinating, albeit political, thread on his discussion board. Lucius Shepard made this remark that got me to asking again about this age-old question of literature:

"I wish, Tom, I was less cynical and could accept the fact that art changes souls, or habits, or instititutions, but I just don't buy it. All the poets and writers and etc whom I read when I was a teenager, those who professed a belief in the power of art to effect significant change, I now think they were either sophomoric idiots or in love with the sound of their own prattle. Even if I grant they were right to a degree in their own day, anyone saying the same thing today...Well, it's not that I don't believe entertainment can't be coercive and persuade you to buy chocolate bars wrapped in blue instead of red, okay? But I think the audience for the kind of art that might effect soul-change (if such is possible) has been drastically shrunk. As to the sort of change you speak of, the group experience, I liken that to the effects of revivalism. When people go to a revival meeting and, amidst a group fervor, accept Jesus, then go home and sin their butts off, which is what seems to happen, I don't give it much credulity. Maybe one person in a thousand does take something real home with them, but by the time it's filtered, processed, regurgitated, and re-interpreted by another audience,the good effect has been so diluted, it's like spit in a river. This doesn't mean that I'm endorsing giving up the effort. Sysyphean effort is the lot of humankind. But a real, pronounced effect...? Guess we're gonna have to disagree on that point."

I may or may not be lumped with the sophomoric idiots, but I do believe that literature can affect change within people, depending on the readers' level of openness to other perspectives, i.e. lack of bigotry--which isn't to say that people should be wishy-washy. To expect every person to be bowled over by each theme encountered would be to expect steep and directionally chaotic waves of fluctuating opinions throughout a population. Rather, change is affected by 1) consciously taking ideas under advisement and waiting to observe whether themes match one's reality and/or 2) subconsciously taking in the information and letting it filter back out should the literature's plot arise in life.

Shepard later writes, "people... don't influence me as much as they reinforce things i believe. Influence is hard to pin down." There's a great deal of truth here. In all honesty, Aldiss' quote did not affect the change in my attitude toward the destruction of my hard drive, which I initially took pretty badly. But reinforcement is, I assert, a kind of change, deepening and affirming and allowing you permission to feel the way you do. Change is a slow process of accretion because we've hopefully already acquired such change, weighing, evaluating and perhaps discarding old changes should better information arise.

***

As a side note, I also enjoyed Jeff Vandermeer's seeming conflict of opinion, an opinion I happen to share, which may or may not be ambiguous, depending on how you view the term: "I do think that writers of fiction can still serve as effective chroniclers of the politics and injustices of their times, so long as it is hardwired into character and plot, and is not done as lecturing.... There's bigger game afoot than political expression in most fiction I read."

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An Oddity

I do like oddities, but this one is really weird. I ordered it a month or two ago but it still hasn't arrived:

Proceedings of the Pseudo Society: First Series 1986-93

Bored medieval scholars invent new histories to scholaritize.

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On Discovery

The computer hard drive went bust, and I no doubt lost thousands of hours of work from the past two or three years--poems, stories, reviews, interviews that may not be retrievable without deep pockets (we'll see if Best Buy can work wonders). I'm telecommuting off a machine with sixteen colors and a 5x7 screen, but I find myself strangely untroubled. Consider this quote from Brian Aldiss' Barefoot in the Head:

"[A]ttachment to things keeps alive a thousand useless I's in a man. These I's must die so that the big I can be born."

Perhaps only by sloughing off the old skin can we live in the new.

***

Meanwhile, I'm slaving at an entry for Gary Westfahl's new encyclopedia project and find myself amazed at the discoveries uncovered not only about genre, but our society. I hope I can keep it under the required length. If it isn't up to snuff and if I gather enough spare quarters, I'll have to purchase one of my own. John Clute's Encyclopedia is a must, but it's quite broad. Reading motifs in context is enlightening, but also distorting as some texts fail on a motif level but are more successful as stories.

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Sturgeon Award Shortlist and Why You Should Attend the Conference If You Can

Finalists for this year's Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, a juried award for best short science fiction of the year, have been announced. The winner will be announced in Lawrence, Kansas, at the Campbell Conference in Lawrence, Kansas, July 8-11, 2004. Last year's winner was Lucius Shepard's "Over Yonder."

SHORTLIST

"Bernardo's House", James Patrick Kelly (Asimov's Jun 2003)
"Dead Worlds", Jack Skillingstead (Asimov's Jun 2003)
"Dry Bones", William Sanders (Asimov's May 2003)
"The Empire of Ice Cream", Jeffrey Ford (Sci Fiction 02.26.03)
"The Empress of Mars", Kage Baker (Asimov's Jul 2003)
"The Fluted Girl", Paolo Bacigalupi (F&SF Jun 2003)
"It's All True", John Kessel (Sci Fiction 11.05.03)
"Looking Through Lace", Ruth Nestvold (Asimov's Sep 2003)
"Off on a Starship", William Barton (Asimov's Sep 2003)
"Only Partly Here", Lucius Shepard (Asimov's Mar 2003)
"The Tale of the Golden Eagle", David D. Levine (F&SF Jun 2003)
"The Tangled Strings of Marionettes", Adam-Troy Castro (F&SF Jul 2003)

***

WHY GO?

This year, especially, the list of guests reads like a World Con convention without the melee: Brian Aldiss, Robin Wayne Bailey, Greg Bear, Gregory Benford, James Gunn, Harry Harrison, Kij Johnson, Jack McDevitt, Frederik Pohl, Pamela Sargent, Donna Shirley, Joan Slonczewski, John Ordover, and George Zebrowski. (The gods of SF convene at Valhalla?)

It's not a regular convention. It's more open and, hence, more conducive to socialibility although the initial hump of breaking the ice is difficult for someone shy, but as Morrissey says, "Shyness is nice and shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life you'd like to."

Friday is the banquet. People used to dress up for it, but it looks like some go rather casually--I think they decide by dressing however Trent does not. The judges hand out both the Campbell and Sturgeon awards saying what made the top three of each stand out. This is also the last year they handle the Hall of Fame inductees, who will be Aldiss and Harrison. Next year, it's shang-haied to Seattle for the new SFX museum.

After the awards, people pile in cars for the party at a local fan's house. Lots of junk food and booze, etc.

Saturday is the conference itself which has no real panels but a round table discussion, which this year is about science and science fiction. Of course, everyone wants to hear what the authors have to say, but you can talk too. Everyone is usually very polite, not hogging the conversation.

Last year, for a conference about history and SF, they played a semi-controversial alternate history movie about the Civil War, which just went to Sundance Film Festival and found a distributor.

Sunday, they have an informal author Q&A about the writers' writing.

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6.15.2004

Donna Shirley does the NY Times

6.09.2004

Gwyneth Jones Gets Last Laugh (or the First of Many to Come)?

David Soyka reviewed the first of Jones' new pentateuch, Bold as Love, saying "no sane person wants anyone who can actually mouth without gagging the insipid lyrics to a piece of pop crap like 'We Are the World' running a government," leavening this, however, with examples to the contrary, i.e. Sonny Bono as a senator. This stirred up a minor controversy with the author, which Soyka felt guilty enough about to interview her recently.

Meanwhile, in Australia, the Labor Party has just received a bid from the rocker of Midnight Oil.

***

By the way #1, Soyka gets bonus nice-guy points for interviewing her as does Jones for consenting (I already knew she was buena gente from Clarion West). I love how people in the genre can disagree yet still get along.

***

By the way #2, my computer is down so no major commentaries from me until it's fixed.

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6.05.2004

Do-It-Yourself Primer on Modern American (more or less) Poetry

A poet just starting out asked about the contemporary scene in poetry. This requires a far more complex answer than I can actually give. However, I can give a nudge--probably more unbiased than most although people will take exceptions here and there. I wish more speculative poets were aware of what has happened in poetry since the Romantics (or hell, even the Romantics). I might suggest a couple or three books for mimicking (in your own way, of course), but see other, older editions which are far cheaper:

Introduction to Poetry (by any of these semi-famous poets):

X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia's
or
Donald Hall's (To Read a Poem or To Read Literature)
or
John Frederick Nims' (Western Wind)

For a sense of the direction that poetry has been heading in, see

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry

(They've got a Modern & Contemporary edition split into two now, but I haven't read it. It includes a section at the back of each with classic essays of poetics.)

An abbreviated version of the above anthology with an additional essay on "Reading Poems" is Modern Poems: A Norton Introduction

Both editions have a great essay on the history of modern poetry (it's the introduction to the fat one & the conclusion to the skinny).

If you have an afternoon and want to graduate from novice poetry, visit the public library to read the imagery chapter in an Introduction to Poetry book, as well as any on bad poetry:

Nims: 1 & 5
Kennedy: 5 & 16
Hall: 1 & 3

Modern: Read the history section and all of the Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson sections to get a sense of the tradition that modern poetry has been moving in--almost no two poets could be more perfectly contrasted in how they deal with lines and what goes in them.

Viola! You are now a semi-modern poet--in education at least. Of course, there is much else to master, but it's a start. Just knowing this much, however, can be enough to appeal to the contemporary poetry markets.

For mainstream poetry markets, just go here.

***

If you hate playing tennis with the net down (i.e. you're into rhyme & rhythm), Lesson 2 of a Modern Poet education would probably include:

Hall: 8 & 9
Kennedy: 8 & 9 & 10
Nims: (last part of 8) & 9 & 10 & 12

Modern: the sections on Hardy, Hopkins, Housman, & Yeats. Extra credit (more contemporary players): Dylan Thomas, Philip Larkin (my favorite of all these guys), Anthony Hecht

***

Lesson 3: Focus on tone and the words themselves

Hall: 2 & 7 & 8
Nims: 6 & 7
Kennedy: 2, 3 & first part of 8

Modern: the sections on Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, T.S. Eliot. Extra credit: Lawrence, Pound, H.D.

***

Lesson 4: Metaphors and other ways of meaning: Approaching a contemporary poetry

Hall: 4 & 6
Kennedy: 4 & 6 & 12
Nims: 2, 3, 4, & 11

Sections on (people will differ widely, so here's a wide selection) W. H. Auden, Theodore Roethke, Elizabeth Bishop, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Richard Hugo, Maxine Kumin, A. R. Ammons, W.S. Merwin, Philip Levine, Gary Snyder, James Wright, etc.

***

Lesson 5: Jazzing around: the branch of poetry for those who like tennis with the net down

Hall: ?
Nims: 13
Kennedy: 11

Modern: the sections on Lewis Carroll, Gertrude Stein, E.E. Cummings, Samuel Beckett, Charles Olson, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, Imamu Amiri Baraka

***

Lesson 6: Contemporary poetry: build your own lesson

Read any missing chapters: on race, gender, translations, revisions, song, myth, etc.

Modern: The richest tradition is probably African American: Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Gwendolyn Brooks, Derek Walcott, Lucille Clifton, June Jordan, Michael Harper, etc. The reason I think Baraka belongs with the Jazzercizers is that the AA tradition is much more clear and musical.

and/or

Modern: Gender as an identity and an issue: Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, etc.

and/or...

whoever trips your triggers.

Contemporary experimental poetry (descendants of jazzing around) may be what many consider the present status of contemporary poetry. Others lament this turn. It often does seem to be beating a dead horse. Perhaps a joining of branches will help revive and add life (i.e. you got your peanut butter in my chocolate!).

Some poets I like but I'm not sure how they would fit others' canons or where they would fit in with others: Karl Shapiro, David Wagoner, Diane Wakoski, James Dickey. Albert Goldbarth is doing his own damn thing, and that alone makes him the coolest damn poet out there. He mind-melds so many ideas and forms, it's mind-blowing.

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6.04.2004

Cool links from Scribbling Woman

Others on Reviewing & on Ambiguity

Daniel Green points out and makes his own intriguing points on reviewing:

"the virtues of first-rate criticism: clear argument, shrewd use of evidence, consistency in criteria, inventive language, and a coherent critical philosophy"

and, on discussing the dastardly sin of codifying what makes pleasurable reading:

"Nonsense. Double nonsense! The appropriate response to literature is not first of all 'intellectual,' so an 'enthusiasm' for poetry and fiction is insufficient only if it also overlooks what is primary in our reponse to such works, which is an awareness of the aesthetic qualities that lead us to be enthusiastic about them. I would agree that a mere undiscriminating enthusiasm doesn't do justice to the reading experience in all of its more particular possibilities. But I don't think this is all that Franklin means to suggest. She takes reading as inferior to criticism, literature as valuable only if it conveys 'intellectual' content or if it can be submitted to intellectual analysis."

***

After this post, I'll be interested in hearing what he has to say on my thoughts on "ambiguity."

Here he writes: "I taught 'A Good Man is Hard to Find' umpteen times, and never could see how the religious allegory supposedly at the heart of the story made any sense--or more precisely, made the story more meaningful because less ambigious. In this case the loss of ambiguity literally makes the story less meaning-ful."

Matthew Cheney's thoughts on ambiguity in Big Fish: "What Burton has done is destroy all ambiguity in his story and remove the audience's participation in the construction of the imagined reality -- and it is exactly that participation which differentiates art that respects its audience from art that condescends to it. It's a totalitarian aesthetic at heart, an aesthetic which seeks one response from an audience, producing work which says, 'Feel this!' at predicted moments rather than opening opportunities for individual response."

On Lucius Shepard's "Only Partly Here," he writes, "Actually, I like the less literal, more ambiguous reading better, one which leaves open the possibility of the supernatural, but also suggests Bobby may be jumping to conclusions."

More bluntly put in "Against Functional Prose": "'[beginning with a quote from Wallace Gray] one can... attempt to hold two contradictory interpretations in the mind at the same time without trying to resolve them.'

"'Revel in the ambiguity [emphasis his]' -- yes, indeed, a perfect phrase for what great prose can offer us: an opportunity to revel, and in revelling a revelation of life and literature's possibilities."

***

My thoughts on ambiguity are either ambiguous or unambiguous, depending.

Marshall your own thoughts. Let me know of any links to commentaries on ambiguity that gets your ire or lights your fire.

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6.03.2004

Revisited: Wiscon & Reviews

Alan DeNiro has rectified the missing order form for Rabid Transit.

Artist and author, Janet Chui does a hilarious Wiscon report in headline/photograph format.

Strange Horizons editor, Jed Hartman discusses a few disappointments with Wiscon this year.

Pondering further Kelly Link’s change in style for her latest story, could it in any way, consciously or unconsciously, be prompted by a spate of new writers who want to sound just like Kelly Link? Who doesn’t?

Gwenda Bond, who also blogs a handful of Wiscon events, reminds me that Christopher Rowe has a recent story in Sci Fiction, based on the same world of his novel-in-progress.

Belatedly, I recalled reading his lead story for the anthology trampoline, “The Force Acting on the Displaced Body Well-Moistened with Cheap Wine, the Sailor and the Wayfarer Sing of Their Absent Sweetheart.” While somewhat imaginative, the longish picaresque vignette’s main strength is its title. I was relieved to read that this was an unusual experiment for him. Instead, get a load of the characterization in “Bourbon Queens,” the piece he read aloud at the convention. This baby is rich: “KT, famously, despises basketball; a hard road in Kentucky.”

I get giddy about these sorts of discoveries, so I’ll try to contain myself. I hope to look at him in more depth later.

***

Is Our Test for Bias Biased?

Wiscon attendee, who anecdotally was frustrated by two jabs at Atwood in a row on a "science fiction" panel, Benjamin Rosenbaum blogs an interesting site which purportedly detects bias. Rosenbaum buys into it. I’m afraid I cannot.

I did the young versus old, and it said I had a strong preference for young; however, I think the methodology is off. It initially lumped old and bad together, which pissed me off. Anyway, I uneasily adjusted to this ordering but then once accustomed to one set of methodology, it was a question of mental dexterity to remember that the ordering switched. What if they had initially paired young and bad? I'd have had a similar mental hurdle to leap with the switch. If this blog is any indication, I may have a slight bias toward the old, but I’m not the best judge. So it's probably a crock, but still another interesting internet oddity to ponder.

***

What We Read for When We Read for Reviews

Over in Matthew Cheney's comment box I found this from Nick Mamatas:

"I compared your review of the book to this one in Emerald City and very much prefered yours. One thing, I like that you take work on its own terms rather than trying to force it into some (generally reader-contrived) history or conversation.

"I also generally skip over extensive quotes in reviews, so don't mind not having them. In reviews of MUG I'm amused to find that nearly every critic who bothers quotes something very different, which suggests to me that no real rigor goes into finding exemplary quotes. Not when digging up whatever supports a pre-made thesis is easier."


To what degree, if any, is this a generality of reviewing? Will Morgan make me regret thinking her Wiscon commentary insightful?

Let me address the first paragraph regarding Cheryl Morgan's review of The Light Ages. It does seem she began with a "pre-made thesis" in her starting with the book cover, but recently reading Tim Pratt's journal suggests that her point of MacLeod's either mimicking or entering into Miéville's dialogue is probably an astute observation that I might not have made without reading Pratt's journal or otherwise having inside knowledge of the industry (perhaps this can be deduced intuitively).

Her plot summary may be long-winded, but her final assessment is intriguing and profound. She is actually digging deep into the heart of MacLeod’s matter. I don’t care much for the dismissive tone, however, but perhaps I’d feel the same. So I am pleased to say that my original statement concerning Morgan held up.

Her statement that “[t]he bulk of The Light Ages is more reminiscent in style of Dickens and Hardy rather than Miéville” is clearly false--at least in my mind. Compare this vibrant exuberance of Dickens’ to the MacLeod passages quoted below (all I have on hand is “A Christmas Carol”):

“No warmth could warm, nor wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he; no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. Foul weather didn’t know where to have him....

“Then the shouting and the struggling, and the onslaught was made on the defenseless porter! They scaled him with chairs for ladders to dive into his pockets, despoil him of brown-paper parcels, hold on tight by his cravat, hug him round the neck, pommel his back, and kick his legs in irrepressible affection!”


Looking up Bleak House online, we find that even in “dreary” descriptions, they tend to spark with enthusiastic sound:

“My Lady Dedlock's place has been extremely dreary. The weather for many a day and night has been so wet that the trees seem wet through, and the soft loppings and prunings of the woodman's axe can make no crash or crackle as they fall. The deer, looking soaked, leave quagmires where they pass. The shot of a rifle loses its sharpness in the moist air, and its smoke moves in a tardy little cloud towards the green rise, coppice-topped, that makes a background for the falling rain.”

I just didn’t find this in MacLeod. She is right that MacLeod is not Miéville, a stylist more attuned to the fiery tug of verbal inventiveness:

“Dragon-fly snakes corkscrewed in thermals and bit at prey.

“The flight-styles of the liberated animals were as distinct as their silhouetted forms. One dark shape flitted towards a streetlamp, unable to resist the light: a fell-moth.”
--from Perdido Street Station

But such a lapse on Morgan’s part is more of a problem in aesthetic judgment, which even her wording seems to hint that she’s not too certain of, either. Mamatas’ preference for Cheney’s reviewing over Morgan’s is becoming apparent (although, strictly speaking, Cheney’s was more of a review of a review, which is a definite dialogue, despite Mamatas’ stated preference for no dialogue within reviews) based on Morgan’s critical strength being deep but less aesthetic than Cheney’s--more on this.

Mamatas’ oddest comment is “I'm amused to find that nearly every critic who bothers quotes something very different.” I would be surprised to find two reviewers of a short story to be struck by the same line, let alone reviewers of a novel.

Why quote? As I said before, how else can we tell what you’re referring to, especially in works larger than a short short? It makes a judgment critically sound since it can be more or less verified by looking at the evidence provided. This is what Morgan was doing when she drowned us in plot summary. Perhaps the amount of it was necessary. If we're going to discuss style, for instance, larger passages are needed to get a better feel. But I don’t think the amount is what bothered him. Reading Mamatas himself, we find few buoys of critical assessments in a sea of clever witticisms:

“I gave Enterprise all of two episodes when it first began and couldn't bear it. Actually, I turned off my brain during the first episode's ‘get nekkid and smear the Vulcan in jelly’ scene as it was just so much pandering.”

This energy is his strength, making him a sheer pleasure to read viscerally, but not intellectually stimulating. His collection title, 3000 MPH in Every Direction at Once, summarizes his style, which is no doubt why he chose it. In his Flytrap column, “Life Among the Obliterati,” he discusses the tired old questions readers ask writers. The discussion and conclusion are a little tired, too, since writers have written exhaustively on this topic, but it’s his delivery that makes it an agreeable read.

This is not critical of the authors in a layman’s sense, but critical in a technical sense. Each of these authors can be enjoyed for reasons--Morgan for critical depth, Cheney for critical aesthetics, Mamatas for verve--too different for a comparison of worth.

How can I simultaneously appreciate what Mamatas and Morgan or what di Filippo and Cheney do? Isn't that sort of ambiguous? Stay tuned....

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6.02.2004

What I learned at Wiscon

Damn. That was fun. Mortgage your house so you can go next year.

Talk.

Ask all your important questions before Wiscon, so they can get answered at Wiscon.

Mingle.

Get involved.

Try not to get too drunk/caffeinated/dehydrated that you miss most of the next day's events (Sorry, Pam and other Saturday panel/party people--the karaoke sounded fun).

***

New books and magazines appeared:

Richard Butner's collection, Horses Blow Up Dog City & Other Stories
(which includes this audio of his story, Ash City Stomp)

L. Timmel Duchamp's collection, Love's Body, Dancing in Time

Jennifer Stevenson's novel, Trash Sex Magic

Sean Stewart's novel Perfect Circle

Leslie What's novel, Olympic Games
(excerpted in progress at Fantastic Metropolis)

The Dogtown Review
(first issue, so the website does not yet exist)

Flytrap
(I’m waiting for my copy in the mail, Tim!)

Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet

Problem Child

Rabid Transit
(new issue not listed yet--get with it, guys!)

Say... Why Aren't We Crying?

***

Forthcoming books announced:

Aqueduct Press
L. Timmel Duchamp's Alanya to Alanya
Gwyneth Jones’ Life
The Same River Twice edited by Kathryn Wilham

Tachyon
James Morrow's new collection, The Cat's Pajamas
Eileen Gunn's first collection, ever!, Stable Strategies
(Gunn is also the editor of Infinite Matrix)
Suzy McKee Charnas' new collection, Stagestruck Vampires (will include stories that won the Hugo and the Nebula)
An annual James Tiptree anthology that will include the winner(s) and fellow runner-ups
A reissue of James Tiptree's Her Smoke Rose Up Forever

***

David Hartwell offered a discount on subscriptions to New York Review of Science Fiction, so if he has a table at a convention, ask!

Nisi Shawl said that Clarion West is doing a fund-raiser where graduates get sponsors to contribute based on the wordage produced. I hated soliciting money as a kid, so I won't be doing this myself. If you graduated and are fund-motivated, you may want to contact Nisi or West to find out more information (she said it's on the website, but I couldn't find it).

Kelly Link appears to be changing her style--at least in the story she read, in this particular draft. I was reminded of a Kurt Vonnegut novel made into a short story, albeit Link-ishly. (Too bad Vonnegut didn't do something like this for his own short work. Good sturdy SF satire, but it might have stood more of the Vonnegut stamp.)

Cheryl Morgan, while offering the occasional, problematic reasoning in a review that causes minor brouhahas, is almost always interesting. (She was the one who quoted Cheney, as I mentioned below.) She said something that makes me wish I'd written it down now.

Eleanor Arnason suggested that, when it comes to economics, ask what really motivates people, and look for no wish fulfillment or zero sums (i.e. someone must lose for my gain).

Barth Anderson is not only one cool dude but also a pretty damn sharp critiquer and knows a helluva lot about food. If you get a chance, say "Hi" and, even better, workshop with him. I kicked myself for missing his panel (although he said the agronomist knew more than he, so he let her do the talking).

Which brings me to my next thought: Could it be that panels aren't as enlightening as they could be? What if only one or two or three at most spoke, presenting dissenting opinions? It seems that panels barely wade into their topics before splashing back out.

The Interstitial Arts will not develop a theory, limiting the usefulness of "interstitial" as a term in any critical sense or any other understanding, for that matter, unless it allows itself to be nailed down which it won't do, but the participants will enjoy playing a game of shifting, slippery rules. I still think there's an interesting theory brewing if people would just allow it to emerge. I expounded on it here via Kevin Brockmeier's "The Ceiling" (Midori Snyder posted my email to her) but plan on extending it with Karen Joy Fowler's "What I Didn't See." I've been meaning to post more here than I have. Bad me.

"Organized Religion: Part of the Problem? or All of the Problem?" A lesson in creating false dichotomies? Too bad I missed this one. It was packed, standing room only.

Joan Vinge offered this juicy bit about scenes from her ex-husband and friend, Vernor: 1) Build world. 2) Move plot. 3) Develop character. If only more writers would heed their advice. (This works for literary stories; see below, regarding workshops.)

Four different professional writers on three occasions suggested that neither a writer nor a critic should take criticism seriously--even when they insult your mother and your dog.

Via the workshop, I alchemically distilled the magical difference between the traditional literary story and the traditional speculative story (hasn't everyone been itching to name this for the past century?): In explaining to an author about putting literariness into a literary story, I realized that literary stories primarily offer bits of characters in scene while speculative works seek to offer bits of ideas. One should not attempt to put up for critique a literary story for SF folk or an SF story for literary folk. I'd put up a controversial story I'd been working on for five years since Clarion West, but never submitted anywhere due to the response received... and found it was still too controversial. Fearing I'd have to think on it off and on for another five years, I finally struck the nub of the matter and questioned Fowler on her thoughts. Two minutes! Two minutes of consultation and the answer unfolded. The woman is a beauty inside and out. Who could not be jealous of Mr. Fowler? What would it cost to clone her?

***

Christopher Rowe was one of my two most impressive discoveries. Andrea Hairston, the other. I have no evidence for this. They did not read published works. They did not supply copies for listeners, either.

Don't I know Hairston from Clarion West? Alas, poor Yorick, 'tis true, but if you're careful, you'll note I used the term "discovery," which is neither hyperbole nor a cruel cut but which means I think she's made stunning progress in five years. Her earlier work was definitely interesting (see Dark Matter: Reading the Bones, the sequel to the World-Fantasy-winning anthology for an excerpt of her first novel) but not nearly this... stunning. One might argue convincingly that I am biased because I am too familiar with Hairston and, therefore, cannot make any critical judgments concerning her work. On the other hand, one might argue that I can only make a statement about Hairston because I am more familiar with her work than Rowe's. Surely, a short short and a novel excerpt do not a grand critical judgment make. I disagree with both perspectives. Just as a good editor does not need to read every page of every story within the slush, a good critic can notice talent, or lack thereof, in a few pages. Conversely, I cannot be too bold when proclaiming the virtue of their novels which are as yet uncompleted. What I'm giving you is a heads-up. Go check out their works when they become available.

Both she and Rowe can have a huge potential cross-pollination if they play their cards right. Their appeal is both emotive and character-driven although their backgrounds make their work distinct from the common literary fray. Hairston is a twenty-year veteran of theater with grants from Rockefeller and the National Endowment for the Arts (see the review of her play, Soul Repairs; she also directed a reading of the play adaptation of the Charnas' award-winning story, forthcoming from the book mentioned above). Her readings are always a dramatic pleasure. Rowe is a veteran of Kentucky. His accent sounded less severe and more lispy (in a cute way, gals, but I believe he's spoken for) in casual conversation, but as he gets rolling through the reading, the lisp all but disappears and the Kentuckian bluegrass twang plucks like a crossroad banjo player, picking against the devil. He's had work in Realms of Fantasy, Ideomancer (not once, not twice but thrice and interviewed to boot), and Infinite Matrix.

***

I meant to attend more readings. I meant to riff off Alan Lattimore's idea that SF needs to be sexy and present the hot new mamas of SF or whatever. The road to hell and all that. One of these days, as Pink Floyd likes to say, I will.

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6.01.2004

A Review of a Review of a Review

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Matthew Cheney's name popped up on a panel in Wiscon (so in spirit, he resided with us in Madison). Little wonder. He's writing my favorite genre blog--yes, even over this one (ed. wants brief and new, which is understandable in the lamentably hip nowness of the blog aether--yesterminute's news might as well have been yesteryear's in our ever-diminishing short-term memory--but this also greatly limits critical discourse).

I'm also pleased to see Cheney taking reviewers to task regarding The Light Ages. Cheney's review was so provocative that I had to read passages for myself. Although I don't have time to do a full-fledged review, I do have a few thoughts on this review:

1) Like Theodore Sturgeon, Paul di Filippo has yet to write a negative review (that I've seen). Filippo has jump-started a number of writers' careers in this fashion (hoo-rah!). Moreover, it is a method smiled upon, guaranteed to win love and affection, beloved by tradition, etc. etc. I agree with Cheney's implicit, driving incentive to address the possibility of Filippo's effluence in the attempt to create a critical base. I'm not critiquing the book myself, but hoping, rather, that critiquing critique will heighten the genre's critical base and, therefore, the genre's basis for respect, inside and out.

2) The statement "it probably even deserves an award or two. Nonetheless, it is also a novel with some considerable flaws....such accomplishments are all but overpowered by the flaws of the book" A) sets up high expectations of being presented with said considerable flaws, but B) sounds like a kind of oxymoron in which you wonder how a book deserving to win an award or two could have "considerable" and "overpower[ing]" flaws.

3) "The narrative structure, rather than being complex, is numbingly linear." Don't get me wrong. I looove complex narrative structures. But there are quite a few great narratives that are linear. A book needs to be judged on what it did (or tried to do) as a narrative, not on what you want it to do.

4) "The fundamental problem with the book is that the main characters are dreadfully dull." I certainly cannot argue with this, not having read it. But Cheney may have missed a few crucial aspects:

4a) "Dickensian" can mean any aspect of Dickens that a person wants. It may have to do with tropes of London and class, or style, or plot, or characterization, etc. Di Filippo probably should have narrowed this down, but then it may have been a nebulous essence that he couldn't pin.

4b) A rich character portrayal is not the same thing as character development. Consider what E.M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel wrote about Dickens' character portrayals:

"Dickens' people are nearly all flat (Pip and David Copperfield attempt roundness, but so diffidently that they seem more like bubbles than solids). Nearly every one can be summed up in a sentence, and yet there is this wonderful feeling of human depth. Probably the immense vitality of Dickens causes his characters to vibrate a little, so that they borrow his life and appear to lead one of their own. It is a conjuring trick; at any moment we may look at Mr. Pickwick edgeways and find him no thicker than a gramophone record. But we never get the sideway view. Mr. Pickwick is far too adroit and well-trained. He always has the air of weighing something, and when he is put into the cupboard of the young ladies' school he seems as heavy as Falstaff in the buck-basket at Windsor. Part of the genius of Dickens is that he does use types and caricatures, people whom we recognize the instant they re-enter, and yet achieves effects that are not mechanical and a vision of humanity that is not shallow. Those who dislike Dickens have an excellent case. He ought to be bad. He is actually one of our big writers, and his immense success with types suggests that there may be more in flatness the severer critics admit."

Although I loved Great Expectations as a young laddie in junior high, I hated A Tale of Two Cities as an adult for being sentimental clap-trap, happily enough, thinking I could avoid the other toe-breaking tomes (toe-breaking from drop-kicking them), but it appears Daniel Green had to make me rethink my position on Dickens. (Mr. Green, don't I have enough to read?)

5) Regarding style, Cheney writes "just about every page of the 452 (and one fifth) pages of the Ace paperback edition has at least one interesting sentence on it. At times, there are entire paragraphs that are gems of image and sound.... even if it has one good sentence per page, there are so many pages that the mediocre sentences reign."

Most frustratingly, here and in other critical statements, Cheney's comments lack backing. How else can we see what he's really getting at? How else can we see for ourselves if we might agree? So, in that spirit, we ask where the atrocities of language are. If you make a bold claim that "[too many] clumsy [sentences]... play on the sensitive reader's ears like a chorus of banshees in a library," you should probably back it up (not that every claim needs backing--and I'm sure I forget to do it when I should, too). I did a number of random page-turnings to check for myself. As Cheney said, some of the language is gorgeously (and at times rhythmically) evoked:

"Now, Mr. Snaith's whole body was quivering as he spread the sleeves of his green cloak. It seemed from where I was sitting that he had actually started to rise from the floor. I peered around the flickering edges of his cloak and his carpetbag trying to see his feet. There were gasps from the audience. All the priest's warning and tales must have come back to them: that changeling have lost their souls, that there is nothing in their hearts, or their insides. Trails of mist then started to weep in smoky droplets from the sleeves of Mister Snaith's suit. The stuff was greenish-tinged, subtly glowing. It turned and roiled...."

Maybe Cheney has a point about variety--assuming he is not referring to occasions of stylistic choice and rhythm--but it's hard to tell from reading randomly. Sometimes the language was more "stilted" but in the sense we associate more with another era interested in erudition and breeding which perhaps shrieks like banshees to modern ears. But is that clumsiness? or is it a conscious choice where, as di Filippo puts it, "style truly supports content"? You decide (Matt may have a better example up his sleeve--but it's the last sentence in particular that possibly supports or erodes his thesis.):

"To me, born in Bracebridge to the pounding of aether engines, the distinction he was making was obtuse in the extreme. To me, if anything, it was the other way around. Aether had allowed us to tame the elements: to make iron harder, steel more resilient and copper more supple, to build bigger and wider bridges, even channel messages across great distances from the mind of one telegrapher to another. Without aether, we would still be like the warring painted savages of Thule. I understood, though, that I was witnessing a climactic moment in Grandmaster Harrat's many struggles with the medium which both drew and taunted him--an experiment in both aether and electricity which he had enacted so often in his thoughts that the actual performance of it now had the heavy air of predictability that such matter long brooded over can assume, as each moment clicks into the next."

I don't know, though. Now that I type it, it doesn't seem too shabby, so I'd like to see Cheney's examples of banshee-bad.

5a) He uses problems with grammar, however, to illustrate problems with "language." There are four problems with this: 1) This is a first-person narrative, and most people make this ubiquitous grammar mistake, among others. 2) It's conceivable MacLeod was aiming for an alternate evolution of usage (but this may be utter hornswoggling from my derriere). 3) Most problematically, it confuses the sound of language with the drudgeries of a language's architecture. I doubt much is gained for the character by misusing a pronoun, but it is a novel, which is a book full of many opportunities to make mistakes, which leads me to guess that 4) a few grammar mistakes will undoubtedly appear in Cheney's future novels (having read a draft or two of a story, I know Matt is capable of interesting work). An industrious, impatient, and dull grammarian can no doubt search Cheney's blog for grammar mistakes. A mistake in grammar does not affect the strength of an argument--only mistakes in the parts that build the argument do. Likewise, grammar should not affect the strength of a story--only mistakes in the parts that build the story should. It is unfortunate that mistakes slipped past editors into published copies, but oh well. Maybe that will increase resale value for collectors.

All in all, I was still excited to read Cheney's blog on the ethics of reviewing. Keep us in check, Matt!