Double Talk

A sign I saw on a bus on my walk to work read:

You see a smaller house payment.
We see peace of mind.

A man and woman are lifting an infant into the air. Adorable. Heart-warming.

I didn't think about it much the first time I spotted it though I thought it weird that anything could be win-win, especially when it comes to an advertisement for a business deal. Then I realized what they were talking about: more money from loans stretched over a longer period of time, which to say, the business's "peace of mind." Of course, they would be the ones to see their own peace of mind, not the couple adjusting the payments on their house. There may be a time for lower payments, but I thought it was phrased a bit dubiously.


A Must-read Shiner Story

Any fans of Lewis Shiner must read Shiner's latest, "Perfidia," which genre fans may have missed since it came out in a literary journal, Black Clock. As good as the story is and as attractive the magazine (not to mention contributions by Steve Erickson, Shelley Jackson, Jonathan Lethem, Ben Marcus, Rick Moody, and others), it's twelve bucks that I might have saved had I known that it will be reprinted in the Subterranean magazine, sometime in the future. That story alone will make your subscription worth it. As for reading either market as a writer, they don't appear to have open submissions, a policy which might help justify spending a writer's hard-earned beer-money on them.

While "White City" was probably his most admirable before this publication (although I'm sure the editors of The Norton Book of SF would think of "The War at Home" which is admirable for compactness), this is truly Shiner's best (that I've read--admittedly, a little more than a third of his short fiction output).

Like most of Shiner's work, it's political, but I tend to admire the craft more than the politics myself, and the craft of this one is superb: rich in detail and plot, with significant characterization. A man bought a wire recorder off Ebay that purportedly has a bootleg recording of Glenn Miller, three days after he died, and at the end of the recording is the sounds of a violent scuffle. The collector goes to France to investigate if this recording is real (despite having a father who is near death himself). The Ebay collector finds far more than he expected and more than the government wants known. The last parenthetical remark is my biggest beef with the story. I can't imagine leaving my father like that without a pang--even if the story requires it for dramatic impact. It doesn't really get touched on, and certainly researching a recording that's waited sixty years to be found could wait a little longer. Other than that, this novella reads like Datlow's old Omni magazine. Go read, now!


SF Posts Elsewhere

Jeff Ford posts a story.

James Gunn on the History of SF (where it's been, where it's going). (How did Tobias Buckell get to it before I did? Bastard!)

Stephen Leigh on workshops.

Deirdre Saoirse Moen has a great series of icons. If you get it, you're in the SF club. It's both funny and enlightening.


Template People

A while back, I touched briefly on a methodology of interpretation that troubled me in the book How to Read Literature Like a Professor. The approach was simply a template method: Squeeze the story through the template, but if it doesn’t fit, it’s not the problem of the wrong template but that all templates fit and are wonderfully ambiguous. The text means anything I say it means.

Templates can work. They’re fast, they’re simple, and they’re simplistic. If they work, great. But once you have a template, then what? For a number of “critics,” this appears to be enough.

The better way is to let the text tell you what it’s about. What is happening to the character? How is the character reacting? How does his environment inform what is happening? How does the story end? Are there interesting parallels, contrasts, or juxtapositions within the text?

One book I came across proves the failing of the template approach. I love to buy old literature books that delve into literary analyses. The Worlds of Fiction was snug in one of the back stacks of the Ohio village of Bluffton (a bite-size college town whose main street lasts three and a half blocks with only one bookstore that volunteers run). The book may be a high school text though it is written by 1964 college professors, Greet, Edge, and Munro.

On a Kafka kick, I wondered what their analysis of “An Old Manuscript” might have to say. It began generally on dream, Freud, the Oedipus complex, God, and so forth. I began interested, but as the explication wore on, it became evident that they would never get to the story. And they did not. They presented multiple templates for the simple reason that they did not understand the story in question (if it was a story. See bottommost John Gardner quote toward the end). They excused the lack of understanding by saying that symbols are vague and cannot be revealed and cannot be interpreted in detail, etc. etc. They used lots of allusions and fancy metaphors, mentioned important people and ideas, simply to sound important, to mask their inadequacies.

John Gardner in The Forms of Fiction, on the other hand, dives straight into the text of “A Country Doctor.” He doesn’t jack around with all the fancy books he’s read. He starts with his general impression--“The surface of ‘A Country Doctor’ is nightmare.”--which he validates from Kafka (not from Sigmund Freud or Barnacle Bill the Sailor): “The story begins as every nightmare begins: ‘I was in great perplexity’; and it progresses as nightmares always progress: nothings seems certain or consistent.”

From there, Gardner highlights certain aspects of the text that for the most part make you nod and say, “True. That’s consistent with how the narrative went.” Try to apply the templates Greet & Co. supplied and you’re left saying, “That doesn’t work, and that doesn’t either.” Of course, Greet & Co. have excuses why their product fails, but do you want to own a product that only works when the moon is a sliver and the black wolves of the nearby nature refuge bay? Do you want Gardner to help you make sense out of words, or do you prefer redolent cowpies gussied up as purty hocus pocus?

I don’t trust models or templates when they’re thrust forward as the first and only method or as an end in and of themselves. If I had heard the academic tell Niven that Ringworld was The Wizard of Oz, I would have asked, “Okay, so how does that illuminate Ringworld?” I found Ringworld actually violated The Wizard of Oz in key regards, so the template seemed rather flimsy to begin with, not to mention dubious to draw conclusions from.

Ronald B. Tobias did a terrific job in Theme & Strategy, putting his methodology together to analyze Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case” [damn good story] (albeit Tobias was a little more moralistic than I remembered reading, but I’d need to read it again to catch her overall tone). My problem with his work was with his use of plot patterns, which I thought needless if possibly even detrimental to a story yet unwritten. Let the story tell itself. What would happen next? A mobster pulls a gun on your heroine, what does she do, considering what we know of her character and available resources (trigger the hidden gun, trap door or bodyguard signal; scream for help; or boldly say, "Behold, puny mortal, my abs of steel")? If the final product matches a familiar template, great. If it doesn’t, oh well.

In general for most texts, simply read it first for an understanding of the surface narrative. What did the ending tell you? What did the narrator or the reader learn? How was this learning shaped throughout the text, inside and outside the main character? Don’t haul out and force-feed the story your handy-dandy box of age-old metaphors (Sleep is a metaphor for death!) and templates (It’s the story of the prodigal son!) until you understand the surface.

If you don’t understand, you may have a non-traditional narrative. One runs into trouble with looking at the characters in the non-traditional tale, but again read for parallels, contrasts, and juxtapositions which may then lead you to what was learned. Find them and compare the context of each part. How is the overall work related to what exists in real life?

If all else fails, try templates or consult the critical efforts of someone else who may have devised another method of interpretation, seeing something you may have overlooked. Does the template or new method match up with the text? If not, the text may be a poser. Sadly, in reality and in fiction, people like to pose, masking nothing with inscrutability to disguise their emptiness.

John Gardner in his analysis [mine] of “Wakefield” (finding it explicit rather than ambiguous) writes:
“[T]he reader must discover through analysis the relationship between the message and the piece itself. Needless to say, if no such relationship exists, there is something wrong with the work.”

None of this is to say that templates aren’t useful. They can be crucial secondary steps. In fact, Thomas C. Foster does an admirable job in How to Read Literature Like a Professor grounding his templates within texts--if only in parts of texts. But if you met a fellow who first tried to shove people into groups in order to judge them, you’d call him bigoted, biased, prejudiced (and maybe a few other words). Classification can aid our understanding of individual people and texts, but it’s more considerate to understand the personality before lumping it with others.


Geoff Ryman Writes Real-World Follow-up to 253

Geoff Ryman won the Philip K. Dick award for his experimental novel 253, 253 lives of people taking the tube, all described in exactly 253 words each.

The BBC just published Ryman's tribute to the lives lost in the London bombing attacks.


Ishiguro review up

My mind's image of the Kazuo Ishiguro review before I wrote it was going to be wonderful. I'm not sure how I feel about it. A year from now I'd have come up with a great way of structuring and phrasing it all, but then I'd be as untimely as ever. I rewrote it somewhat--revised from its original publication on August 1--but never did go into the process of applying and discarding different interpretative models. Some folks will be happy about that, but I believe books worth reading are worth discussing; therefore, a good review has something to say about the final product without spoiling the plot's unraveling.

Hopefully, the review's worth reading whether you've read the book or not.

It's published at SF Site (there's a kind of sad irony that a Xena advertisement shows up next to Ishiguro).