99 posts categorized "da novel"

June 11, 2008

Reading Update and a Long Detour About Indy Bookstores

Got a bug up my ass and spent all my free time in the past three days re-reading Tamora Pierce's Protector of the Small series. I was partly inspired by badgerbag's Moomin, who dressed like Kel (complete with birds glued to his tunic! so cute!) at Wiscon, and partly by finally getting to organizing my bookshelves (still not done)--which I put off for a year and a half, until I realized that not being able to find books meant that I was starting to buy second copies of books I already had, boo--and finding the books again.

Anyway, I loved the series again. It held up well. I'm still trying to figure out what that glow around it is for me. It might have something to do with the fact that Pierce was the first middle-grade/YA author I read as an adult going back to YA. When I was working at the lamented A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books, our resident YA expert recommended the at that time incomplete series to me.

Indy bookstore people ... now there's a topic all of its own. Working at an indy bookstore was my first "real" job, after babysitting and a paper route, i.e a job where I had a boss present and coworkers and coffee and a break room. I was seventeen and had just dropped out of high school due to depression, ennui, and a whole buncha other issues I won't get into. My town in southwest Michigan in 1987 was the kind of place where 60 adults would apply for a position at an indy bookstore that gave a written test to all applicants, and a 17-year-old high school dropout would get the job because she was the only one who could answer half the questions.

(The test just gave titles and asked for authors, gave authors and asked for one title from that author's bibliography, then gave titles and authors and asked what section you'd shelve the book in. Many of the books I was able to answer questions about were books I hadn't read, but had seen on my family's bookshelves, so I could match author to title and title to author. If that isn't a demonstrable economic advantage that having books in the hizzouse gives a person, I don't know what is.)

In between 17 and 29, when I started working for A Clean Well-Lighted, I forgot what indy bookstore people were like. Don't get me wrong, I didn't leave the world of cultural capital behind me at all. I was in a German university, working for an international gallery, and then in San Francisco community arts. Smart, well-educated people, all. But there's a difference between people who read books, people who use books, people who write about books, even people who write books ... and people who sell books as a career.

Educated, cultured people are discerning about books. They know, or think they know, what is good and what is not. They have their blind spots and prejudices. They are afraid of whole categories of books, and love and depend on other categories. They say they love books, and mean something very incomplete and limited by that.

Booksellers love books with a completeness and passion that no one else has. All other relationships with books are partial: readers love what's in the book, for a time or forever; collectors love the physicality of the things; academics view books as extensions of colleagues, things to argue with, treasure, stumbling blocks and tools; writers understand how books come to be, and see in them the shapes, textures and histories geologists see in a landscape.

But career booksellers are like good kindergarten teachers: they have a more discerning eye about quality and ability than nearly anyone else except parents, but unlike parents, they love all the babies distantly and unreservedly. Every book, no matter how bad, deserves respect and place. And good books are to be found in every category and genre. When it comes to books, career booksellers are more democratic than anyone.

Which is why most of the ACWLP employees were reading YA, along with everything else. Had it not been for my second brief stint in an indy bookstore, I probably would not have gone back to reading YA, or gotten started on science fiction, or continued with mystery. None of my tastes were suspect at ACWLP. No one was embarrassed to debate the virtues of Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams, or Elizabeth George and P.D. James, or Philip Pullman and C.S. Lewis. Some of the men in the store had read Georgette Heyer! And had opinions!

This is what we're losing to Amazon and the internet: a ground zero for a complete love of books. I'm not one of those who thinks that bookblogging is somehow less than: book blogging is an unreserved good, not to mention, something new under the sun. It's great and it's a great place to get people excited about books. But there's nothing like an indy bookstore to replace it; noplace to take your actual body and sit in a big armchair and drink some coffee, and browse the realm of physical books, smelling the print and paper, admiring the covers, looking askance at the displays, reading the shelf-talkers, and asking the staff to recommend something for you.

Okay, back to Tamora Pierce. I think the glow in rereading these books comes not just from remembering my first fun adult YA experience, but also from the books just being really good. It's not that the books aren't forumlaic. Pierce has perfected her own formula, and that's what makes her so popular. But within that, these books fulfill exactly what they promise, and don't overdo any of the elements. In the third book, Kel has to foster a stolen baby griffin, who scratches and bites her all the time and whose parents might kill her when they find him. This device is amusing for a while and then gets tiresome, but before it becomes boring, Pierce gets rid of it.

Likewise, Kel faces misogyny, as the first girl to try for knighthood without disguising herself as a boy, and in the first book her obstacle is the misogyny of her authority figures. In the second book, it's the misogyny of some of her peers, but it's also her own fear of heights. By the third book, although we know she'll encounter misogyny wherever she goes and we see it, Pierce doesn't tax us, or Kel, with it, because she has bigger fish to fry. The whole thing is perfectly intuited, perfectly shaped to please the reader ... and it does.

Pierce was at WisCon this year and I missed my chance to meet her, but I haven't forgotten what a surprise and pleasure a good YA can be and I'll definitely look her up next time.

June 07, 2008

Reading Update

I'm currently reading The Wandering Unicorn by Manuel Mujica Láinez. Why had I never heard of this writer before I stumbled on this paperback translation in a used bookstore? He was apparently one of Borges' cronies (Borges wrote a brief foreword in this book), and a real devotee of both medieval romance and the Borgesian meta-encyclopedic view of the world.

He's also a kickass writer. Observe this passage, which describes the viewpoint character, an immortal fairy, watching over an unusual medieval family at rest. The fairy is the knight Ozil's ancestor. The family are a stonemason (Pons), his minstrel brother (Ithier), his wife, a former camp follower (Berthe), her son with Ozil (Aiol), her daughter (Azelais), etc.:

By moonlight and candlelight I saw the soft contours of the sleepers, pale as ghosts. Only the toil-worn Pons had a night-cap on. Beside him Berthe was a curving mound of generous hips and full breasts, voluptuous from her years of erotic exercise. Every immature line of Azelais, even in sleep, was wary and defensive. Her skin was marble-white, translucent, and her beauty almost too perfect, with something frightening, feline, and ambiguous about it. The servants were stocky peasant-girls with fetching dimples and dusky armpits, veins knotted in their legs by drudgery. Then the three tall forms of the boy, the knight, and the minstrel. The skin, taut across the bones, revealed the muscles beneath the matted grey hair on Ozil's chest; showed Ithier skeleton-thin from his courtly employments; showed Aiol, fifteen years old, like a statue in bronze. The soft glow on the brown skin, the relaxed sprawl, the absolute grace and proportion, belonged to the art of a later age than the twelfth century with its stern, compact creations of craftsmen such as Pon.

I loitered above them until it was late, partly from love of Aiol and partly to savour the knowledge that I was not alone. Instead of vegetating in the tower at Lusignan I was here, sharing their joys, doubts, and despairs; here with their breathing, their murmurings, snores and snuffles and broken words, the grinding of teeth and the smell of humanity in an overheated room. As I had felt that Aiol, sitting by the window, saw into the future, I felt that here, with these sleeping, vulnerable mortals, I was close to the deep, strange roots of the world; that the entire essential world was here, growing like a splendid plant with separate leaves and flowers in the fertile shelter of an inn at Poitiers.

Now that's what fantasy should be. The usual youth-and-beauty-worship is there, the romantic virgin/whore suspicion of women, the artisan/knight dichotomy alive and well here too, and the strange feminization of male beauty in the eyes of the emasculate witch/fairy. But Láinez writes all of this in supreme consciousness of what he's doing. He makes the archetypes complex, comments upon them, and connects the whole with the sublime purpose of fairytale and, by extension, literature. Well, the above is more fairy tale, and the below more literature:

These unpredictable human beings! Observing them in public, you would never suspect, unless you were unusually astute or cynical, the things they do in private. Much of the famous tension of today arises from anxiety as to whether some door which should be shut may have been left open. Admittedly, inadvertent revelations, shattering though they may be, add their spice to life---they provide new vistas, energize it enormously ... But enough of that. The reader will have gathered, I am certain, what was happening in the cowshed.

Indeed.

May 02, 2008

A Note

I just realized that, as I've been reading The Death and Life of Great American Cities for a month now, it's been a month since I read a novel.

And I haven't missed it.

Something's wrong here.

April 23, 2008

Views From Distances

The internet doesn't have everything.

I'm working on da nobble right now and trying to figure out how much detail of someone else's actions a character with 20/20 eyesight could see at the distance of a quarter mile.

So I went online to see if any random genius had posted photographs of what things look like at various distances: 100 feet, 100 yards, a mile, etc.

Couldn't find anything like that.

Does anyone know of such a resource ... or would anyone like to create such a resource? ;) Seems like a good project for a student studying landscape, land use or surveying.

Just a suggestions.

Cross-posted at atlas(t).

April 17, 2008

Writin' Update

The plan seems to be workin' so far.

The plan is that I can't do my paid work--not ALLOWED to do my paid work--until I've done three hours of nobble work. This pushes my paid work into the evening, since I've been spending most of my day avoiding nobble work. But I might be less hard-ass about the three hours and make it 2-3 hours.

Funny, I get a little panicky when I've put off nobble work long enough to endanger the paid work. We'll see if it keeps on working.

Okay, gotta get back to nobble. Half hour to go.

April 14, 2008

Nothing Doing

I have nothing in particular to write. The weather in the Bay Area was fucking beautiful this past weekend. I couldn't stop smiling and looking around. It was so bright I had to squint even with my shades on. I slept with the windows open.

Everything I did, all the music I listened to, was imbued with glory and sadness, that summer feeling, like you are at the height of something and everything will be downhill from here ... but also don't worry, because it will come back.

Today is still bright and sunny but chilly. I'm insistently wearing my flip-flops, because, well, I don't want to let this weekend go yet. But it's gone. My feet are cold.

Da Nobble is again underway. Every time I stand back from it, I'm overcome with terror. When I was a small child, I had a recurring nightmare which was very difficult to describe, because it was simply a feeling with no images or sensory impressions attached. The feeling was just that of standing before infinity or endlessness. There was also a sense that I needed to encompass, or even merely comprehend, the infinity that I stood before ... but I think that feeling is inherent in human responses. When you stand before something overwhelming, you automatically feel an impulse to comprehend it, and it is this need to encompass combined with the impossibility of encompassing the infinite, that is so terrifying.

Also, infinity is just terrifying in itself.

I had the dream most intensely between about age five and maybe age ten or eleven. In grade school I could recall the dream during school hours and give myself a fun little thrill of terror while surrounded by daylight and people. But at night it was just devastating, because it wasn't the kind of nightmare that made you scream and brought your parents running to comfort you. You couldn't actually tell anyone about it because you were too young to articulate it and it didn't sound scary in any case.

The last time I had the dream was when I was seventeen. That's a whole nother story, but the point is, I don't fear--or experience--endlessness anymore. But standing before a big project like da Nobble, trying to understand all the things I still have to do with it at once, recalls a small amount (really tiny, actually, it's nothing like infinity), of the terror I felt in my childhood nightmares.

They say that genius expresses itself in the mind of the genius as an instant comprehension of the whole of a field of endeavor--a comprehension that includes exquisite views of detail, a total revelation of structure and energy flows, as well as an overview. Like the musical genius looking at sheet music and being able to see other possibilities, or understand the various melodies and harmonies and chords simultaneously, as individual lines, as masses, and as flows that work together; being able to understand the piece as one expression of a multitude of possible expressions.

And in essence, I think the work of each of us artists and writers (and scientists, and tradesmen, and artisans, and organizers) is to take the slow route to genius: learning and adding each aspect of our chosen fields, slowly building over time that total comprehension which comes to the genius instantly.

After much reading and writing and study and analysis, I've added a great deal more comprehension of writing to my overall ability. That's my job as a writer. I've begun to "see" and "feel" structures and flows of energy, to understand alternatives in a manner that now seems intuitive, but isn't the slightest bit intuitive, because it is the result of hard work and conscious acquisition.

And, hardest of all, I've begun to be able to apply this to my own work ... slowly, painfully, and with much attempted brushing away of bullshit. It's hard work. To "see" da Nobble clearly requires a great deal of posturing and glancing out of the corners of my eyes. I have to spend two or three hours posturing for every one hour of solid work I get done ... and that's even on my best days. And I've only just begun again. I don't have my routine down yet. In fact, what I'm doing right now, writing this, is posturing and bullshit-hounding, in prep for--at most--a couple of hours of revision.

But I'm working. Hallelujah.

April 10, 2008

Martian Territory Law Updated

Of course it would be in the National Review, in Bush's early years, that some idiot would write an article calling on the US to opt out of the 1967 international treaty agreeing to no national sovereignity claims in space.

The post argues that article II of the treaty does American interests "harm," although it never specifies what that harm is. Apparently, because article II was intended to restrict funding to NASA (and succeeded), that means we should repudiate it now.

Now we find ourselves in an entirely different world. The Soviet Union is no more. Mars, it         turns out, has far more water than we previously suspected: enough to support colonies, and even programs aimed at giving it a climate more hospitable to humans. The reward for going to Mars has increased dramatically.

Um, okay ... and what was that reward again? I mean, aside from learning how to keep people who leave Earth's atmosphere and magnetic field for extended periods from dying of radiation sickness? Or maybe giving science fiction writers more jazz? Or maybe sheer excitement?

People, people, we're not looking at a viable alternative living space here. To terraform Mars would require more Earth resources than it would produce or maintain ... probably ever. The potential mineral resources might be attractive ... assuming the iron and nickel are even there in a useful form ... if we needed iron and nickel that badly ... which we don't. But we don't know how to power spaceships without fossil fuels--something that we may well run out of in the next century--and transportation of any resources from Mars would far outcost the resources themselves.

How can conservatives NOT understand the liberal tendency to see them as crazy, greedy, and pathologically nationalistic, when a typical conservative response to a renewal of funding in space exploration is a call to claim sovereignity over unviable and as-yet unreachable territories in contravention of law, common sense, and even imagination?

I want to hit my head against a wall repeatedly, but this attitude is exactly what I need to understand for da nobble, which of course takes place on a Mars already claimed as a territory by the US.

***** UPDATE

oo. Missed this is in the first sweep. Here's an actual PIRG guy (albeit from Texas) advocating the creation of an International Agency for the Development of Mars to enable the selling of Martian territory to private individuals to spur the development and settling of human colonies on Mars.

Again, why? I dunno, but this guy gives more of an answer than the previous dudes:

The IADM should be structured so as to allow ordinary citizens to purchase land shares and prevent all of the shares from being gobbled up by governments and corporations. If this is successfully done, I think it’s possible that we will see a rebirth of a social drive which has been largely extinct for the last century: the push for the frontier. In an increasingly bland, stratified, and commercialized world, the desire to strike out on one’s own, to build a new home even in a harsh and unforgiving environment, will again come to the fore. By mid-century, I wouldn’t be surprised to see restless and adventurous people, the spiritual descendents of the American pioneers, buying Martian land with the full intention of settling it themselves.

Why now? Well, because our world is  "increasingly bland, stratified, and commercialized," and the best solution to this is to create a new frontier and get our manifest destiny flowing again, not, you know, to use our imaginations or to fix our problems or anything.

I say "Mars!" You say "Dumbass!"

Mars!

Dumbass!

Mars!

Dumbass!

April 01, 2008

I Knew That!

Space radiation endangers manned Mars expeditions.

Duh.

Hint: this is an issue in da nobble, WHICH I WILL START IN ON AGAIN THIS WEEK! YAY!

February 24, 2008

I Love Orwell

I was talking to Tisa tonight and brought up Orwell's essay "Shooting an Elephant." After we got off the phone I looked it up on the web to send to her and found this website about him created for his 100th birthday (in 2003).

I went through some of the essays. It's been a few years since I engaged with Orwell at all. And I re-read "Why I Write," which I last read about five years ago, looking for something to give my students. I remember thinking it didn't suit my purpose exactly back then. Truth be told, I always read pieces from writers about why they write, looking for similarities to lovely ol' moi.

I remember the part in this essay where Orwell writes about writing a running description of his life in his head as it is happening. I did that, although at a much younger age: from 7 to about 10 or so.

But the stuff about politics and aesthetics didn't land with me last time. This time they did. Observe:

Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living. They are:

  1. Sheer egoism. Desire to  seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen -- in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all -- and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.
  2. Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.
  3. Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.
  4. Political purpose -- using the word "political" in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples' idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

... Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects. Everyone writes of them in one guise or another. It is simply a question of which side one takes and what approach one follows. And the more one is conscious of one's political bias, the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing one's aesthetic and intellectual integrity.

What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, "I am going to produce a work of art." I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience. Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant. I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself. The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.

... I will only say that of late years I have tried to write less picturesquely and more exactly. In any case I find that by the time you have perfected any style of writing, you have always outgrown it. ... Looking back through the last page or two, I see that I have made it appear as though my motives in writing were wholly public-spirited. I don't want to leave that as the final impression. All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one's own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.

Sigh, it's hard to excerpt Orwell. Everything he writes has a purpose in the whole. But anyway ... what he said.

I don't know if ... well, actually I DO know. I know that this didn't land with me five years ago because I last read this BEFORE I started Da Nobble, which began as a desire to expose a lie: more specifically, I wanted to write a book with a shrewd Asian male protagonist who didn't know any martial arts and had stature for any other reason than being able to kick people's asses.

As I wrote, I discovered that there were more and more lies which could be addressed in the story: things about women and men, about sex, sexuality, and gender, about race and immigration and colonizing and expansion and exploitation, and on and on and on. And in the process I guess I really did become a political writer, although perhaps I wrote politically before then.

I used to say these things, hoping to believe them, but now they actually mean something.

I don't know that I have much more of a point than this. Stuff I'm thinking about. Orwell good.

December 21, 2007

Top Ten Novels

Inspired, or expired, or despired, by all the year-end top ten lists, plus something I saw somewhere about writers' top ten novels lists, I've decided to do my own top ten novels list.

But, of course, there has to be a caveat. This is not necessarily the top ten best novels I've ever read. That would be too difficult, given my moodiness. These are, rather, the novels that created my understanding of what novels are, broke that understanding and remade it, added to it substantially, or, in at least one case, helped define a whole area of things that novels shouldn't be. This is a litany of idiosyncratic reading experiences; not everyone--or even most ones--would have the same eye-opening experience upon reading these books, although I can heartily recommend all of them, and, in fact, do. This is really just a reading memoir, really. And I hate memoir. And redundancy.

Also, there are more than ten, as you will have immediately noticed. But Top Ten just rolls off the tonguish.

  1. The Dark is Rising: I wrote about it recently so I don't have to repeat, but this is a peculiar and beautiful little jewel of a book: not logical, nor perfectly structured--as YA and fantasy and YA fantasy must usually be--but intuitive and grand and cold and mysterious and ritually layered and smart and adult and complex all at once. I never found an age-specific book to match it because there is none, and it didn't so much confirm my childhood reading as point away from it, into the possibilities beyond.
  2. Pride & Prejudice: is so popular right now it hardly needs more elegy (or more accurately, rhapsody) added to its account. But beyond the "romance", which I started finding suspect at a fairly young age, P&P remains a favorite because it is so damned perfectly structured. I've read it twenty times (no exaggeration) and the structure never fails to usher me through the same emotional experience. You can become so accustomed to something that you sicken of it; you can build a tolerance to drugs; but a perfect narrative arc somehow never fails to raise your blood pressure at the right moment, even when you know what's coming better than you know the feeling of your own birthday.
  3. Jane Eyre: people pass over the weirdness of JE, I think because it's weird and that makes people uncomfortable. But weird is what happens when you take the sketchiness of a fairy tale and inhabit it with complex characters. I don't mean what Gregory Maguire does. Wicked and ilk is just a more complex formula. I mean, when you play out fairy dust in the real world, to its logical conclusion. When wives go mad and husbands are half-wild and damagingly entitled, and a half-benevolent, half-malicious universe intervenes to allow women of spirit to both escape, and be enslaved, in equal measure. JE is an anomaly among Victorian novels not because every single aspect of it wasn't a rampant trend of its era, but because Bronte committed absolutely to every device, and every line, took all of it absolutely seriously, rather than allowing herself genre and ironic distance like all the mens did. The result is Emily Dickenson weird, like focusing on flies' buzzing, or how to paint a billow, or the expression on a dog's face at twilight, when the universe shrugs to startle the master's horse.
  4. One Hundred Years of Solitude: hardly needs commentary either. Again, this was an issue of structure for me, a lesson in how Pride & Prejudice five-act fiction wasn't the only way to go about it. My first spiral structure, and induction into the pleasures of varying velocity. I didn't see it until the end, but the final sentence of Solitude tells you all you need to know about the book ... but only if you've already read the book. So it was also my first experience with that successful paradox of show vs. tell. And the book, also paradoxically, while falling me in love with lush lyricism (just like everyone else), was actually what put me on the road towards a more stripped down prose ... because once Garcia-Marquez has rained petals from the sky to mourn the death of a patriarch, what more can I or anyone do? Plus, an experience of pure, extended beauty. Truly. I was in a daze for a week. One of my few moments with the ecstasy of writing, felt while reading.
  5. The Dispossessed: Rather a dry experience, compared with all of the preceding, but a book that set me intellectually on fire because it was the first political novel I ever read. I mean, sure, I had to read Upton Sinclair and Orwell and Steinbeck and Uncle Tom in high school, but when the politics of the book is over--and come to think of it, all of those were books about political situations that had been largely resolved, although they left a mean residue--so is the book's impact. The Dispossessed was something of a complicated utopian novel, the first one I ever read after all the dystopias I read in high school (1984, A Clockwork Orange, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451). I'd never experienced a political world that I so wanted to inhabit, nor felt the representation of a political reality better than the one I already inhabited. I'm no revolutionary, and I wouldn't go so far as to say the book created an activist of me. But what I have been able to do since then is at least partly enabled by the awakening of my political imagination ... something very different from political consciousness and much more essential to the workings of true democracy.
  6. The Joy Luck Club/The Woman Warrior: I'd be the first to scream if someone else glommed these two together, but I have to put them together because in my mind, they are the good and bad sides of the same coin, and the one didn't take effect on me until the other one had been thoroughly assimilated (used advisedly). I read Woman Warrior in high school, after picking it out of a used books bin in--where else?--SF Chinatown as a tween. It kinda fascinated me and kinda turned me off, partly because I was looking for some reading experience I could finally identify with, and, although I recognized the universal Chinese mother, Kingston--like any good writer--took care to make her mom an individual rather than a universal, and a Chinatown girlhood isn't the same as a hapa midwestern suburban girlhood. The other turnoff was her careful and fabulist deconstruction of novel, memoir, and superhero/hero's journey narrative. I was not at an age to appreciate that.

    Then in college I was home for the summer and helped my mom out with a cocktail party she threw without being asked and she was very impressed with my sudden maturity--I had always previously bellyached about having to greet and serve guests. When I finished the dishes I retired to my room and that night she left her new hardcopy of Joy Luck Club outside my door with a note thanking me for my help and telling me I was a good daughter (underscore hers). That's my mom all over: half serious, half self-reflectively ironic. I still have the book, and the note, and, although my bitchy mind started deconstructing the book almost immediately, I recognized in Joy Luck the orthodox version of the unsatisfying meta-memoir in Woman Warrior. At the time, I uneasily thought of Joy Luck as the better book. I now recognize Woman Warrior as the ur-text, the brilliant, unique one, which had to be tamed before it could be codified as the arc of the assimilating immigrant. I've written about this in Hyphen magazine and won't bore anyone with it here, but this was my beginning as an Asian American writer.

  7. Howard's End: Modernism wouldn't have made much sense to anyone without Forster to bridge the gap and I'm no exception. And just as everyone takes what they want from Modernism and leaves the rest, I went forward in my reading only to eventually go a step or two backwards to Forster. He introduced me to the deconstruction of the third and fourth dimensions ... but gently. Howard's End, with its timeless mansions and perpetually updating railways, is the novel of space/time compression fighting it out with imperialist expansion. I didn't experience any of that my last two years of college, but I did feel the way Forster messed with the reader's experience of time, so that important moments pass in a sentence, and untangling their implications is the quotidian work of the rest of the novel. With a little hindsight I can see that Howard's End--all of Forster, really, since I gobbled his entire oeuvre in a year--slammed the door on the following classics: Jane Austen and her manners insulated from the source of their wealth (see Tisa Bryant on Mansfield Park), and Charlotte Bronte and her Indies-plantation-owning-African-mission-going romantic males. Forster's literary heir is really Orwell.
  8. Middlemarch: Speaking of steps backward, my big discovery during my grand tour of Europe after college was Eliot. I went and read more and more and more Victorian-era novels: all of the Brontes that I had missed, all of Elizabeth Gaskell and Wilkie Collins, Turgenev, Dostoevsky and Tostoi, maybe a little Georges Sand ... and of course, all all all of Eliot. And--not to diss the intellect of all of the preceding, especially Forster, but Eliot's oeuvre--Daniel Deronda, Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, and especially Middlemarch--were my first encounter with fiction written by an intellectual writer and critic with a broad understanding of her time and a clear and expressive (rather than emotional and expressionistic) prose style. It's hard to rhapsodize about effectively, but emotional intelligence, breadth of vision, passion for people, and the ability to inhabit every stage of perspective, is my definition of genius thanks to George Eliot. She influences me more than I ever know when I'm in the midst of writing, and if I had to choose only one writer to emulate, Eliot would be the one.
  9. Cosmicomics: Not a novel, of course, but close enough to make a difference. Beautiful, weird and whimsical, funny, and with a simultaneously light and heavy touch ... everything I have written since I started reading Cosmicomics has been an attempt--in its way--to reproduce the effect of that book. It's that (to me) horrifying construction, a book of linked short stories, that remakes the novel, and indeed the short story for me. Not because of any structural or space/time funkiness--once you get past the sci-fi-y surface, these stories are very traditional--but because the ideas are so lovely Calvino just sort of ... doubled them back on each other, for the fuck of it. My most purely loved book on this list.
  10. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius please don't try to tell me this isn't a novel. And no, I'm not interested anymore in that discussion about the memoir/novel or the novelistic memoir, or the true novel or the fictional autobiography. Suffice it to say the lines have been blurred, who cares by whom? It's all the--by now--GenX clichés Eggers wielded with excellence (yes, excellence) that make this book for me. Maybe I'm slow but it blew my little mind in 1999 and made a permanent dent. Eggers remains the only writer of my generation who has successfully blown my mind. (Lethem has also blown my mind, but not with a single book. Not that that's less valuable than the single-book-mind-blow, but that doesn't play as well on top ten lists.) Eggers is a negative influence. All due respect, but I have to fight hard not to write like him. He set up some rhythms and phrasing tricks that are so. damn. easy. to imitate.
  11. Parable of the Sower: My introduction to Octavia Butler. I've written about her here and here and don't feel like getting into it again. She found me a way to write science fiction, something I had always wanted to write but couldn't find a way to do while incorporating all my Asian American issues. 'Nuff said.
  12. Mumbo Jumbo: And finally, the book that answered my lingering questions about how I want to--and can--write what it is I have to write. Or put another way: what do I actually have to write. Reed gave me the structure of a process for using the code-switchy language of my actual life and not the prettified standard language Asian Americans are supposed to learn to get a dialogue with the power butlers. Reed teaches that surface and depth can be completely connected, so your linguistic polyrhythms can show and tell about what mainstream American wants to dismiss as schizophrenia simultaneously. Complex and challenging, but not white noise; a wall of word noise textured with different weights of meaning. A language that cites its sources moment by moment. Aleluja!

August 24, 2007

One African American Reading List

In the course of this ongoing discussion of race and literature, David Anthony Durham gave a commenter on his blog a recommended reading list -- but only in the comments. I hope he doesn't mind my reposting it here--mainly because I want to save a record of it for my own use.

Go Tell it on the Mountain, by James Baldwin (First novel by a famous black literary novelist, about coming of age, identity, religion, race.)

The Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler (The only novel by a sci-fi novelist here – a tale of a near future with a world in increasing chaos, brutal and grim, but also poignantly hopeful as well. If you haven't read her please do. I think she was terrific, and I'm disappointed I'll never get the chance to meet her.)

Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison (Classic with a capitol C. His notion of invisibleness of African Americans became a central theme and metaphor regarding race in America.)

Angel of Harlem, by Kuwana Haulsey (A young, contemporary author. This is basically a biopic novel about the first black female physician in New York. That was a rather amazing accomplishment considering that the medical community didn’t think blacks – much less a female as well – were anatomically capable of higher thinking.)

Hunting in Harlem, by Mat Johnson (Another young author, decidedly urban, with a bit of the “thriller” to it.)

The Kind of Light That Shines on Texas, by Reginald McKnight (Interesting short stories with quite a bit of range.)

Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison. (Toni can be tough to get into, but she's worth the effort. I think Beloved is one of the best novels written - ever. I mention this one, though, cause it's darn good to, and bit more accessible.)

Little Scarlet, by Walter Mosley (This is a crime novel and can be enjoyed as such. I also think it’s shot right through with insightful – and sometimes confrontational – thoughts on wearing dark skin in the US.)

I’d be being coy if I didn’t mention my own books, Gabriel’s Story and Walk Through Darkness. I’m very proud of them, and believe they’re accessible and plot-driven at the same time as they're meant to hit some deeper themes.

I can second the Octavia Butler, Walter Mosley, and, of course, Ralph Ellison picks. And I have to admit that Song of Solomon really didn't do anything for me. Everything else is going on my wishlist.

August 05, 2007

How Do Editors Reach Out to Writers of Color?

Damn.

I wasn't gonna get drawn into this debate, because Tempy and Tobias were already doing such a good job and saying what I wanted to say, but then I went and read the comments in Tobias's post and now I'm annoyed.

People were--well, one person was--calling out ABW for placing the lion's share of blame on the editors' shoulders for needing to go and reach out to writers of color if they really wanted to diversify the stories in their rags. This someone asked when they were supposed to have the time to do all this outreach.

Are you fucking kidding me?

First of all, arguing that editors don't have time to do their jobs doesn't really excuse anything. It's an editor's job not merely to present the best writing that's sent to her, not merely to make a real, good faith effort to find the best writing that's out there, but to actually encourage writers to produce more and differently--to shape the kind of writing that gets made in the first place. Anyone who doesn't know this isn't really a professional in the field.

And the best editors of the most respected magazines do exactly that. They don't sit on their asses and wait for the transom to emit. They run around like madpeople to conferences and workshops and readings, they collect zines and spend time on the internet and ask their trusted writer/editor friends for recommendations. They talk to agents. They do rain dances, naked.

They also turn to writers and agents and proactively ask them if they have a story on X, or a story written like Y. They do this knowing that word will go around that Editor Z wants X and Y! And tons of hungry writers will step up.

So it's funny that X and Y are so rarely "stuff by writers of color" and "stuff about people of color." All an editor has to do is ask.

2) Given that editors have to do this and also that their time is limited, why don't we poc make things easier for them? I mean, let's start a list of places an editor should go to outreach to those ever-elusive good poc writers. I'll start and maybe members of other communities can pick this up. I'd be happy to host a mini-carnival on this topic, or simply to collect the responses and post them all together at some later date. Please feel free to add resources in the comments, especially if you have a blog that you know poc writers read.

These tips should include:


  1. list servs, forums, bulletin boards, etc. where poc writers are likely to be found

  2. blogs poc writers are likely to read

  3. print and online magazines and newspapers poc are likely to read

  4. real world organizations poc writers are likely to hang out in

  5. poc writers conferences, conferences, festivals (esp. literary festivals)

  6. reading series where poc are likely to participate

  7. undergraduate writing classes at poc-heavy campuses and poc student orgs (yes, they really should be thinking ahead. Someone will be much more likely to START writing if they know they'll be welcome there when they've FINISHED writing something.)

What follows here is a list of all the poc real world and online spaces I can think of to use to outreach to writers of color. NOTE: this goes for literary writing AND for SF/F:

General POC


  1. The Carl Brandon Society (poc speculative fiction writers) discussion list-serv and blog

  2. VONA Voices poc writers workshop, and their email.

  3. Mosaic, an African American and Latino literary magazine, whose lit editor is Sheree Renee Thomas


Asian American
  1. Kearny Street Workshop (Bay Area Asian American arts) opportunities list-serv

  2. Kearny Street Workshop's links page to other Asian American arts and literary orgs.

  3. Asian American Writers Workshop

  4. Hyphen Magazine (national Asian American magazine) blog

  5. Angry Asian Man blog

  6. dis*Orient Journalzine

  7. This listing of South Asian American (Indian subcontinent) journals also includes general As Am markets, some of which might be defunct.

  8. DesiPundit blog, Indian diaspora.

  9. Tiffinbox blog, Indian diaspora.

  10. Resources on South Asian lit.


Chicano/Latino
  1. Galeria de la Raza (Bay Area Latino multidisciplinary arts organization.)

  2. PALABRA A Magazine of Chicano & Latino Literary Art

  3. La Bloga, a Chicano/Latino literary blog

  4. Other Latino literary resources


African/Caribbean American
  1. African American bookstores in the USA.

  2. Black magazines and journals with open submissions.

  3. Publishers with a particular interest in Af/Af Am writers.


Arab American
  1. Links list of Arab writers writing in English.

  2. Mizna, Arab American Journal

  3. Al-Rawi, association of Arab American writers.

  4. Resources and links to Arab American writers.

  5. Angry Arab blog


Native American/American Indian
  1. Native American writers directory

  2. Native Blog, native American/American Indian blog.

  3. Native American/American Indian literary resources.


Academic

  1. Here's a links directory of all the accredited Asian American studies departments and courses in the USA. Many of them will have As Am-specific creative writing courses.

  2. Here's a links directory of African American studies departments and courses in the USA. Many of them will have Af Am-specific creative writing courses.

  3. Here's an incomplete links directory of Latin American/Caribbean studies departments and institution in the USA. Some weeding will need to be done.

  4. The University of Michigan's Arab American Studies Center. A bulletin board, newspage, and resources page are all under construction, but you can email them your call for submissions here.

  5. List of Native American Studies programs

July 26, 2007

Carl Brandon Society Awards Nominations Close Soon!

I've been sadly remiss in announcing this:

The Carl Brandon Society is accepting nominations for its Kindred and Parallax awards until July 31. You have four days, people! Get on it!

The Carl Brandon Parallax Award is given to works of speculative fiction created by a person of color. Nominees must provide a brief statement self-identifying as a person of color; creators unwilling to do so will not be considered for this award. This Award includes a $1000 cash prize.

The Carl Brandon Kindred Award is given to any work of speculative fiction dealing with issues of race and ethnicity; nominees may be of any racial or ethnic group. This Award includes a $1000 cash prize.

Here's a link to the awards page.

June 12, 2007

Blogaverse Reading Update

I am currently suffering from blogaversion, brought on by too much soul-serrating work. I. Will. Force. My. Way. Through.

Was by Geoff Ryman

The Seelight Scale

Crap
Legible
Readable
Not Bad
Recommended
*Highly Recommended*
Do Not Go Another Day Without

It's hard to tell. I've read Air and now this, and neither book was a slam dunk. The novelistic slam dunk relies, I'm currently convinced, on a combo of powerful, focused structure, and that little sumpin' sumpin' called fire, or power, or firepower, that the best writers bring to the language and meaning.

I don't think a novel can dunk it without both, although perhaps a short story can do without the extremely powerful structure.

Ryman has neither the structure, nor the power. What he's got is an intelligence and complexity that understands how to be intelligent and complex in a story. He has enough of a storyteller's momentum and drive to forbid you putting down that book too easily, but not enough to keep you up all night. He has enough power to make you stop and think and keep going at the same time, with very few of those annoying lit fic "oh, gratuitous lovely language!" moments, but not enough to make you high. He has enough structure (in Was at least) to make the blurry cyclone shape clear, but not enough to make it clear where the book should properly end. None of these are his strengths.

I'm not getting that devastating catharsis from reading him. But I am getting more thoughtful, intelligent storytelling than the NYT usually shakes a stick at.

Maybe I'm getting old and farty (not maybe) but I'm learning to value that.

May 07, 2007

Book Review Brouhaha

I know I'm cruisin' for a bruisin' when I say this, but I'm not sure losing traditional print book reviews is necessarily---well I won't say "a bad thing" because I don't think it's either a good thing OR a bad thing. I think it's a sign of the times. I mean, of course, that the print book as it is and has been is dying, and the literary establishment is ill, ill, ill-equipped to even recognize that fact, much less prepare itself to move on to the next thing.

"Literary Fiction," i.e. that which is regarded as the high form of the art, and appropriately rewarded with university study and small patches of prestigious prize monies, is the most overworked, trope-ridden, regressive, reificatin', self-diddly on the artistic block. I'm not sayin' that SF is any better--most of it isn't. There aren't many fresh breezes blowin' around the bookshelves is what I'm saying.

I'm not exempting my own work, by the way.

Where the fresh stuff is happening is TV. Yep, you heard me, tv. Film, which is short-form narrative--short stories--is going the way of Salinger product in the decline of the Saturday Evening Post. It's all about the long-form visual narrative now--all about the serial drama. Yes, like the novel in the 19th century, tv drama still carries a whiff of low/bad. But who cares? I defy any random six New York Times' notable novels from last year to compare in excitement, freshness, power, audacity and frank, hardy narrative chops to Heroes, Deadwood, Carnivale, the first two seasons of Battlestar Galactica or Six Feet Under, or, from what I hear, since I don't watch it, The Sopranos.

There's breeziness in anime, too, I'm told, especially the serials, and in manga. There's freshness still in the "graphic novel" revolution, although there I'm also not an expert. And, if Second Life is any indication, RPGs, which themselves are becoming more excitingly narrative, are melding with social networking in a way that bodes extremely well for a new form of interactive narrative art.

Yes, I'm still dreaming of STTNGesque holonovels.

So why are we nerds and geeks left all alone out here in the cold with the naked scion of narrative art? It's the cart/horse thing again: they're cutting the horse loose without investigating what will replace the cart. They're recognizing that people aren't reading book reviews but not looking at why or what the next thing should be. I don't think the answer is to start reviewing games and manga in mainstream print rags. But there COULD be some thought about proselytizing.

Ha, who am I fooling? It took the NYT what, only eighty years to come up with an intermittant column addressing spec fic? Print spec fic.

What I'm saying is, though, without having any answers, that you all intellectuals and readers can stop feeling so good about yourselves. The train is leaving the station and you're still waiting for a blacksmith to come along and reshoe your horse. Go. Ride. Be my guest. Riding is a beautiful sport. It's just not going to get you anywhere anymore, and before you know it, you'll find yourself riding cavalry into WWI against tanks and nerve gas.

The novel is no longer equipped to convey human life at the velocity, within the complexity, to which we've become accustomed. The prose, on-the-page narrative no longer mirrors our existence. God, I love novels. Novels were my first love. But what I loved about novels wasn't the novel itself, but what the novel could do. What it could do to me and with me and what it could do to the world and about the world. Between this moment of my adulthood and my novel-soaked childhood the novel has--between probably last year and this year the novel has--become obsolete.

And the discourse about whither the book, whither the novel just looks brown to me. Brown and crinkly, like a dead leaf.

So either we need to start talking about how to change the novel to help it keep up (html novels, anyone?) or we need to start talking about what we're going to put our narrative energy into instead of the novel.

Of course, I have no intention of stopping my writing. But for the past several years I've been writing with at least a partial understanding of the fact that I need to master the novel at some level so I can help push it forward into its next, less-text incarnation.

Who's with me?

May 05, 2007

Reading Update

Finished two books this week:

The Last Colony by John Scalzi: third of a trilogy and and interesting way to turn the politics of warmaking back on itself. Go read!

Coraline by Neil Gaiman: nice 'n' creepy. Go read! (I don't know him, but I'm hung over and don't feel like reviewing.)

Still working on Landscapes of Fear by Yi-Fu Tuan.

January 28, 2007

Ishoo Wun

So why does hybridity necessarily dovetail with adolescent identity searches?

First, let's quickly define "hybridity". I did this before in a triumphal, let's-change-the-world way. But we need a more working definition. So for now, "hybridity" means the process or product of a melding of two cultures, subcultures, forms, processes, or dynamic structures.

Got that? So you mix, combine or meld two things, and the process is hybridization. The outcome of that hybridization is a hybrid, or hybridity. This could be, for example, American yoga (melding American understanding of religion and exercise with an Indian tradition form), or Eminem (melding white, working class cultural norms and understanding with a "traditionally" black, working class art form), or nanotechnology (biology and robotics), or wholistic (holistic) medicine (western traditional medicine with western science-based medicine with eastern traditional and science-based forms), or the Prius (gas-powered and electric-powered), or me (Chinese and white).

Got that? Okay, let's go.

Hybridity, especially of the racial sort, but of many other sorts as well, is a topic frequently explored in YA (young adult) fiction. That is to say, when authors grapple with multiraciality or hybrid identities, they tend to turn to YA, or Bildungsromane (trans.: Bildung means "upbringing", "education", "personal formation" in German; Roman means "novel"). Most novels of hybrid identity either fall entirely within the scope of YA or a Bildungsroman, or else begin with youth and the identity-forming years.

But that is also to say that when you approach YA novels and Bildungsromane that aren't otherwise about hybrid identities, their form and format very often leads them into an examination of some type of hybridity or hybrid identity. The two---identity search and the exploration of mixing and melding---seem to be closely associated in our cultural thinking ... or perhaps merely in our narrative form.

Of course, all teens are definable as being in the midst of the basic and essential identity search: "finding themselves", who am I? and all that. Given. Teenagerhood is also a process of transitioning from childhood intellectual and emotional dependence to adult independence of same. Dependence on the conceptual constructions of another means necessarily a lack of flexibility. When Mommy says playing with yourself is bad, she doesn't mean (or perhaps she simply didn't say) that doing it in front of other people is bad and doing it when you're alone is acceptable, and doing it when you're lonely is good, and doing it instead of being promiscuous with strangers is virtuous, and experimenting with it is dangerous but exciting. Playing with yourself is just bad. Period.

Which is why we say that teens "experiment" with drugs and sex: not to see what happens when you mix this drug or that action with your body chemistry, but to see what happens when you challenge something Mommy or Daddy told you. The experimentation fractures your understanding of "do" and "don't" into "do sometimes" and "don't do under these circumstances" and "think first because you don't know what to do here." The confusing but comfortingly black and white instruction set of childhood is replaced by an ethical code which requires interpretation. Teens are introduced to the necessity for flexibility, to an ambiguous world in which ambiguity is often what allows you to survive or to be yourself.

For a few short years, teen minds are so soft and flexible that they can literally be turned around overnight. A concept they always held to be sacred can be flipped in an instant. Faith can be killed, or created, in an afternoon. Three different adults can tell them three different things and they can act on all three beliefs simultaneously, while consumed with rage at the contradictions.

Ah, teens.

Adolescence is the moment we come closest to touching ambiguity as a substance, and not just a state of understanding.

I have a tendency to use "ambiguity" and "hybridity" interchangeably because, obviously, this is my experience of being what other people consider a hybrid. But they are not exactly interchangeable. Ambiguity is defined by its use in words and communications. It is "doubtfulness or uncertainty of meaning or intention," or "Doubtfulness or uncertainty as regards interpretation," or "unclearness by virtue of having more than one meaning."

What I mean by interchanging them is to underline the fact that certain things about me are verbal or conceptual constructs, and not actualities. Race, for example, is a conceptual--and verbal--construct. I am only multiracial if you consider my race/s to be:

  1. distinct
  2. mutually exclusive
  3. important
In defining me as a hybrid, you are giving me two or more distinct, mutually exclusive, and important values and meanings. Which means that my singular meaning to you, my meaning, being and purpose as a person contains within it more than one distinct, mutually exclusive, and important meaning. Which makes my meaning, and which makes me as a person, ambiguous.

The synonyms of "ambiguity," which is to say, the word's connotations, are "vagueness, equivocation, deceptiveness." Its antonyms are "explicitness" and, oh irony!, "clarity." Ambiguity, the lack of a clear meaning, is, in itself, neither bad nor good. It simply is. However, our culture (and perhaps to a certain extent all human cultures) values clarity, hard definition, and shuns ambiguity. Probably why it is only since the European Enlightenment we have even had adolescence, much less a culturally-understood search for oneself.

Most people in our society go through an extended moment of recognizing that their categories are not, technically, all perfectly dovetailed. The things they thought were hard, neighboring truths about themselves are, when taken to logical extremes, terribly contradictory. And becoming adult means--in essence--acclimating to what seems like contradictions when looked at in this way. Becoming adult means learning to ignore what seem to be personal contradictions--or learning not to mind that one can't explain oneself to oneself. Learning to accept one's own mystery and the mystery of others. Learning to live meaningfully in the absence of a single, clear meaning of life.

Lovely enough, but it's a process that isn't seen at all, being internal. It's a process that's impossible to tell stories about directly because it's manifested mostly in tantrums and acting out.

So, often and often, some sort of obvious hybridity becomes the metaphor for the process of disambiguation (or more accurately, enambiguation) that happens beneath the surface of every zitty teenage skin.

This is often some sort of racial hybridity or hybridity of biological genesis. After all, in our society we permit people to leave behind with rage of adolescence the hybridity of being both parents and children, being both friends and enemies, lovers and fighters, teachers and students, athletes and drunkards, artists and accountants. We move forward no longer seeing that these are any contradiction. We actively avoid the hybridity of male/female, desire and friendship.

What we can't let pass is the hybridity of race. Not in this society, with our racial hierarchy. Such things can't be ambiguous. Whether you're a father or son right this second isn't important. It doesn't impact your status or how a stranger will treat you. But whether you're black or white right this second really, really does. So racial hybridity or hybridity of genesis become the stand-ins for all such adolescent processes.

All Graeco-roman heroes' tales are Bildungsromane, coming-of-age stories. Because the very definition of the hero is a semi-divinity: someone born of a mortal and an immortal parent, who is himself mortal, but possesses superpowers. A hybrid. There is always a near-climatic moment of reckoning with one's hidden parentage. There's always a moment in which the desires and limitations of the human are forced, through action, to meld with the powers of the god; a moment in which the hybrid potential is fulfilled by ignoring the contradictions inherent.

I'm exposing myself to severe flame-action, but that's Jesus' story as well. Son of a human and a god, he finds himself three times: at the temple when he is (no coincidence here) twelve years old lecturing to his elders; in discovering his ministry, which exposes his superpowers of reasoning, persuasion, love, and leadership; and on the cross, where he discovers his superior powers of self-sacrifice. He is in himself a hybrid, but he is also one aspect of the ultimate contemporary western hybrid: the trinity, simultaneously father, son, and holy spirit. (Yeah, and no coincidence, either, that protestant sects violently debate the nature of that hybridity; it is also protestant sects that raised the racial slave trade in North America to an industry, and that went to war over ending that same institution.)

And then of course, in these atheistic times, the hybridity between the natural and supernatural---which makes into story our ability to fulfill our own potential by ignoring categories---becomes more and more abstract and less and less religious. We no longer believe in gods or fairies, so the hybrid coming-of-age story becomes related to what we recognize as fantasy only.

I'm not gonna say that the slide from the more obvious forms of hybridity in our society to fabulist literary forms is seamless. China Miéville points out that the magical races (dwarves, elves, orcs, etc.) in Tolkienesque fantasy are rigidly held to biologically determined character virtues and flaws and that that is profoundly reactionary and bigoted. Obviously, not all swords and sorcery writers think such things about human races. And the hybridity in the YA magical protagonist is not always racial (being half-elf, for example) but otherwise genetic (being of a line of witches, for example). But the connection between the two is an obvious one, and one that is made usually without a great deal of reflection or philosophy.

Which is why you see so many protagonists of Young Adult fiction who have magic in them. Usually, they got it from one parent. Usually, that parent is missing or dead or presumed dead. Usually, that parent turns out to be either alive him/herself, or alive in the form of a close relative with similar aspects/powers. Usually there is a reckoning with that parent, with that parentage. Usually--always? almost always?--there is a moment where the implications are thrown to the winds and the potentialities of both parentages are melded. Always this is the climax. Always it leads to a new hybridity of two old, seemingly mutually exclusive states of being or doing. Always this new hybridity is understood as the becoming of the protagonist, the protagonist's total being.

I can only half-remember examples of the many, many books like this I read when I was young. The albino kid from Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series, which was my favorite series, sticks out. Here, the kid (SPOILER ALERT) is raised as an orphan by relatives, and later discovers himself to be the secret son of King Arthur and Guinivere, displaced in time. King Arthur, of course, is a magical being simply by virtue of his position in the imagination.

Or, more recently, there's the Harry Potter series, in which the human racial diversity is a matter of extreme blandness, but a deep discomfort with racial ambiguity is only semi-intentionally displayed through the conflict between Muggle and Wizard families. The main hybridity there is in Harry, whose mother was a Muggle. Harry is raised as an orphan by relatives who obfuscate his magical heritage, and the magic in his Muggle heritage. This hybridity is mirrored, naturally, in Harry's arch-enemy, Lord Voldemort, who was the son of a witch and a Muggle, raised contemptuously by his Muggle family, and "rescued" by Dumbledore and Hogwarts School. Both hero and villain face a reckoning with their mixed heritage, but only Harry, and by implication only, makes peace with both, although he allies himself with the magical world. Voldemort is portrayed as succumbing to evil because of his hatred of his Muggle half--like a half-Jewish Nazi.

There's also a more complex and nuanced discomfort with the whole issue of authenticity and cultural genesis evidenced in Hermione, who is herself a Muggle with magical abilities, an analogy to, say, Tracy Turnblad from Hairspray, who is a white girl with mysteriously black powers of dancing. And then there's Neville Longbottom, who is feared to be a Squib, a pureblood wizard with no magical abilities, the analogy to the Oreo, the black person who is white on the inside---or perhaps to the aristocrat with common tendencies.

An early exchange between Draco Malfoy and Ron Weasley, both pureblood wizards, about the value of mixed-bloods intentionally promotes Rowling's diversity agenda, and unintentionally displays Rowling's discomfort with the idea that there can be a difference in being born to a magical family and being adopted into one, or to being "naturally" magical, yet having to learn magic in school---all racial/ethnic issues rampant in current American and British demographics.

But my favorite example is not considered a YA at all, although I think it has all the markers of one. That is China Miéville's King Rat, definitely not his most popular book, and also his only full-length novel that doesn't take place in Bas Lag. It's not a coincidence that I quoted his notions of raciality in fantastical races above. He's the only fantasy writer I've seen who's created a plausible and effective fantastical scenario, that consciously promotes an actively ambiguous hybrid identity in its protagonist, rather than implying it, or fumbling the ball by calling something hybrid that actually looks only like one of its parts. (I'm sure there are more of these, but I haven't read them.)

The whole structure is there (BIG OL' SPOILER ALERT--and take this one seriously, because this book is worth reading for its own sake): a young man, Saul, raised by his father (his mother is dead) comes home to find his father killed by defenestration. Arrested for patricide, he is rescued from jail by King Rat, the anthropomorphic supernatural spirit of ratdom, who claims to be his uncle. King Rat tells our hero that his mother, King Rat's sister, was a rat as well, making Saul half-rat. Saul is then instructed in the art of being a supernatural rat.

There is the necessary revelation and confrontation of parentage when Saul discovers that King Rat is actually his father, his mother having been a human that King Rat raped. Then there's the moment of melding of identities at the climax, when Saul faces the Pied Piper, who can't compel him by flute because he's half-human, but has melded (hybridized) his flute music with a drum 'n' bass DJ's beats to catch both rat and human in Saul. This is the part that is unusual, because Saul's revelation here is that he is not two halves, but one whole, and cannot be made into a sum of his parts, like the music that the Pied Piper has created. You can't mix human and rat music and expect to catch a human and rat mix. He is something else; himself.

A very multiracial conclusion. The irony is of course that Miéville has essentialized human and rat for the purpose of making the point that races can't be essentialized. But I'll (mostly) let that pass.

A lot of this is implied in more sophisticated fantasy, like Ursula LeGuin's A Wizard of Earthsea, where magic isn't really a result of parentage. It just happens. And the hybridity is actually an entirely internal process of melding virtuous with dark impulses, that LeGuin manifests in a shadow self.

And then, of course, there's Octavia Butler. But I'm not ready to write about her yet. She didn't follow this particular pattern at all. She created her own. That's a topic for another post.

Complex of Ishooz Redux

I proposed a Complex of Ishooz a while ago and then ignored it. Let's get into it again. Let's set 'em up and knock 'em down.

Here were the Ishooz again:

1. Why does hybridity necessarily dovetail with adolescent identity searches?
2. How would an adult or mature hybridity tale look? Are there any?
3. Why does contemporary urbanism necessitate hybridity (besides the obvious, and yes, we will detail the obvious)? What would a homogeneous city look like? (ooo! Zamyatin, here we come!)
4. Why are magic and technology always "other", and therefore a product of hybridity? Why are magic and technology never indigenous or immanent?
5. Why is technology of the city, and magic of nature?

Aaaaaand ... they'roff!

January 15, 2007

InNoWriMo Returns

Okay, so I think I've actually gotten settled in to a sufficient degree that I can begin InNoWriMo again. Tomorrow will be the 16th day of a 31-day month. I will begin again tomorrow night with the 2-3000 words a day and continue until the 30th. The 31st will be a big ol' drinkfest.

Yes, the rest of my month will be full. But it's only half a month. Yay for me! Yay for January! Yay for writing! Yay for Nobble Jr.!

I will be reporting spottily on my progress because I still have no interwebbiness at home, and it's too damn cold for me to go outside at night to get to an unheated wifi cafe where the wifi goes down fairly frequently. However, I will keep track and you will see red text again!

Yay!

January 05, 2007

Oh And ...

Also, I'm resolving to record all the books I read this year on the blog.

A couple years back I estimated how many novels I'd read in my lifetime (including YA when I was a kid) by taking the two books a week I can pretty much confirm, multiplying it by 50 (not 52, just to be conservative) weeks per year, and then by (again, conservatively) the 25 years between beginning third grade and beginning grad school. That's 2500 novels, folks. Conservatively.

Given the huge swaths of years where I was reading 3-5 books per week, I figure the number falls actually substantially north of 3000.

My reading rate has seriously declined since I went back to school in 2002. They had me reading 1-2 books a week, but I was also writing the equivalent of a novella a month, which as we all know, takes up the same brain estate as reading. My writing rate hasn't declined much, which is good, but my reading is now seriously erratic, and as often as not, touchy, research-prone (i.e. nonfiction), and ranty.

The good news is that the novel form has so pummeled my brain that I never ever have to read another novel again ever. It's in there, good and tight. So everything from here on out is just gravy.

Plus, from my mid-teens to my late twenties I was very self-conscious about my reading lists and, although I read plenty of junk, I forced myself to get through a number of difficult "classics," so now I feel like I don't have to do much difficult reading anymore.

So now I'm just interested to see what it is that I actually read, and if there are any patterns. I've added a new category to the blog, since "books" won't do: "whatcha readin'?" So at the end of the year I can clicky there and get the whole scoop. Fun, no?

Right now I'm reading The Known World by Edward P. Jones, which is an interesting thing to follow up my (last year's) reading of Octavian Nothing with. World so far is too literary genre-y for my taste. Litfic tastes like cardboard to me. But I'm not very far in.

After that I'm planning on catching up on my atlas(t) blog reading. But we'll see. I always need some good fluff. Any recommends? The fluffier the better.

November 28, 2006

Catvacuuming

The honeymoon is over. I've been in this cafe for nearly an hour, reading crap on the internet, in an attempt to avoid getting to my 2K words today. Yep. Writin' a nobble.

Now, for something completely different ...

November 19, 2006

InNoWriMo Begun

So yes, I started today. I spent the late morning, early afternoon collecting together all my notes on this YA novel, which is working-titled "The Sixth Element." I added a bunch to the notes, then I wrote half of the first chapter. Then I went to dinner and the theater with some friends, lost track of the play halfway through, started daydreaming about the new nobble. Then came home, poured a glass of wine, and finished chapter one.

Off to an excellent start. I'll give you a hint: an oil refinery shaped like a dragon.

InNoWriMo Tally:

Today's wordcount: 2824
Total wordcount: 2824

November 17, 2006

InNoWriMoPocalypse Now

Okay, so after writing the InNoWriMo post (below) in which I said I would start InNo once I had settled in to a job, and after having yet another job interview

(tally:

Interviews = 5
Second Interviews = 2
Rejections = 3
Offers = 0),

it occurred to me that I'm hanging absolutely everything on my getting a job. Contingent much? This is bad because it lays waaaaay too much pressure on getting the job.

(tally of things contingent upon getting a job:

1. finding an apartment
2. buying a car
3. getting health insurance ->
4. expensive health measures I shall take once I have health insurance which I shan't specifiy here
5. getting my kitty back (he can't live with me here 'cause my roommate's allergic)

and now

6. writing a novel)

I think that's waaay too much, don't you?

And sooo, in the interests of not putting my entire life off until I have that elusive job, I'm going to:

1. start at least looking into getting a car (yes, Ernest, I know I said I would weeks ago)
2. start InNoWriMo

That's right, you heard me, I'm going to start the new nobble, and I'm going to start it on

Sunday!

Which means that (time for another list):

1. my WriMo will be from Sunday Nov. 19, to Tuesday Dec. 19, which is thirty-one days, but I'm planning on taking Thanksgiving off.
2. I will aim at 3000 words/day and accept 2000, for a grand total of 60,000 -- 90,000. Is this unrealistic? We shall see.
3. I will not freak out, whatever happens. If I fall below my wordcount, I will not freak out. If the writing sucks, I will not freak out. I will stay the course, no matter how many soldiers die ... uh, I mean no matter how worthless the campaign-- er the nobble is. Wow, I know he's still alive, but I feel like I'm being haunted by the ghost of Rumsfeld. (Is he still alive? Was he ever?)

Sealed with spit and ... uh, pee, which I'm going to go take right now. Bye.

November 14, 2006

InNoWriMo

Okay, so all the brouhaha stuffs around NaNoWriMo has got me thinkin' (... ... ...)

What I'm thinkin' is that I've always (since I heard about it four years ago) wanted to do NaNoWriMo, but for the past four years I've been working slowly on my nobble and that wouldn't have worked with NaNo. But I'm now taking an indefinite break from the nobble and I need another long-term, but not as long, project to put a space between first draft and second.

So here's what I'm thinkin'. Once I get a job (whenever that will be) I'm going to give myself a week to settle in, and then I'm starting my InNoWriMo (Individual Novel Writing Month). Whenever, wherever that happens to be. My target is 3000 words a day, but I'll let myself get away with 2000. (I can do this and have done it, only my tendency is to stop when I don't understand the psychology of a situation and not push through it but simply wait until I do understand it. This is something I need to get over.)

I even know what I'm going to write: I have a YA novel idea, which I've partly outlined already and written two initial pages of, but which I have since shrinked from working on because, you know, I haven't finished the last one yet. But if I'm going to plug through this one in 30 days, somehow that seems fair.

This means that the likelihood of my being in InNoWriMo during the holidays is high. So be it. In fact, Let's Hope So, because if I got a job tomorrow, I'd still be writing through Thanksgiving at least.

A spit handshake on the deal.

October 14, 2006

Writer's Block

Ever' body's askin' me if I have writer's block re: the nobble, and I didn't think I did. I thought I had a massive case of avoidance, which I didn't think was the same thing. But then I read this thing in the New York Times which said:

depression, which ''afflicts writers at a rate 8 to 10 times higher than the general population.''

(yoikes!) and:

'both very low and very high levels of arousal interfere with performance.'' In other words, too much motivation, as well as too little, can trigger writer's block, and this explains why ''the bigger the project, the bigger the block.''

hmmm ... and:

A friend of mine once invented a ''cure'' for minor blocks ... : to counteract a procrastination, create a bigger one. Think up a grand, long-term, world-changing project -- something like Mr. Casaubon's ''Key to All Mythologies'' from ''Middlemarch,'' or that old reliable, the Great American Novel -- and in your mind invest it with such life-defining importance that everything you do that doesn't contribute to realizing it becomes a waste of time. As long as meeting this week's deadline is a way of avoiding the really big thing that you ought to be doing instead, it becomes much easier. A pretty feeble ruse, perhaps, but it works.

which might work except the nobble is pretty damned big ... that's the problems; and then there's writing as avoidance of writing (kinda like this post!):

In ''Out of Sheer Rage'' Dyer achieves a Cartesian state of procrastination, leading his readers through so many densely nested layers of avoidance as he travels the world visiting Lawrence's haunts that not writing about Lawrence becomes an end in itself.

Okay, maybe I am blocked.

September 29, 2006

On Typewriters And Longhand

Scalzi has a post about the bad old days of writing, when everyone used carbon paper and had to retype MSS 'n' stuff.

It's funny, because I'm a year younger than Scalzi (that's right, do the math), but I didn't start creative writing on a computer until I was around 25 or 26. I started creative writing at the age of eight, and started writing daily at 14. Which means, yes, that I did my entire creative writing BA longhand and on a typewriter. I still remember using carbon paper as a kid. I went to private schools where we were doing term papers in fourth grade, which means that I was writing term papers in the seventies still, when photocopiers were harder to come by. Our class materials were mimeographed.

Our high school laid in a lab full of Wangs (knowing what Wangs are will seriously date you) a year or two before I started, and the year after I graduated, computer classes became a requirement. Same in college: I didn't have to touch a computer my entire time there. In fact, I was supposed to do a third of my math requirement quizzes on computer, but I did the calculations and found that I could take a zero on these quizzes and still pass the class, so I did. Math whiz, no?

There was a year in college where I lived alone (with a cat) and I still have a ream box full of stories I typed out that year (many of them were about cats). That was also the year (I was 21) that I switched over from composing longhand and revising on typewriter to composing on the typewriter and then retyping for revision. The process wasn't much different, maybe a little faster. In both cases, you had to be sure to compose double spaced -- not so that your workshop classmates could write nasty notes in the margins, but so that you would have room to rewrite whole sentences and paragraphs.

By this point I was using one of those brother typewriters specifically designed for computerphobes like me. It had a little liquid whatchamacallit screen (more like a tape) above the keyboard that allowed you to view and "edit" one single line of text at a time. (I never figured out how to edit so I never used this feature.) When you typed past that line of text the typewriter "ribbon" (actually a tiny printer) would print it out on the paper. The printer used a special ribbon that they stopped making two years after I bought the thing. After that, since the printer used heat in some way, I could buy thermal paper (very expensive) and print directly onto the thermal paper without a ribbon. Naturally, you couldn't use carbon paper with this "typewriter" but by that time, photocopiers were everywhere.

I couldn't avoid computers any longer when I was living abroad in the mid-nineties and all my friends were on email and I couldn't contact them. My dad got me a Mac laptop (one of the first powerbooks! The screen was still black and white!) for Christmas and showed me the basics. So easy! I spent the next two years teaching myself all the bundled programs and since then nobody has ever had to teach me new software. I really glad I learned this way, because I'm so much more self-sufficient on a computer than if I had been taught someone else's way to use it when I was a kid.

The funny thing is (and pay attention, 'cause here's the funny thing! ... again!) I never had an "a HA!" moment with using word processing software. Yes, it's easier. Yes, you don't have to retype ... but here's the thing: I still do retype, at least once in the process of writing a short story. It's usually near the end, after most of the major revisions have been made. No, I haven't done it yet with the novel, but I'm not in that part of the process with the novel, yet. Yes, I plan on doing it with the novel.

Why? Well, see, here's the thing: computers worked their way into my life while I was still writing extremely juvenile, early twenties stuff, so my writing process wasn't complete yet. So when computers busted into my life, I was perfectly happy to follow the process suggested by the software. I cut, I pasted, I typed new things directly into old paragraphs. 'Puter heaven!

Then, in 2000, I took a writing class taught by my friend Sabina Chen. In the discussion about revision processes, she said for particularly intractable stories she would print them out and then delete them (gulp!) and sit with the print out in her lap and retype the entire story from scratch, using the print-out to refer to, but really mostly rewriting from memory. The point of this is that after you revised and cut and pasted and regenerated and all that, you have a Frankenstein's monster of a story. So you retype the whole thing in one sitting, changing shit as you go, to smooth it out, make it all one.

I tried it, it worked like gangbusters, so now I do it for all my stories. I don't print the old version out and I don't delete it; I just set two files side by side and type the new one while referring to the old one.

Thing is, it's not that different from typing out a rough draft, inking up the rough draft with multiple passes at revision, and then typing out all your revisions in a final draft, smoothing out as you go. I don't notice a substantive difference in processes, nor even in time spent. The only difference is that you can see how the finished product will look each time you make a revision on computer, and not so much when you do it longhand on a typed MS.

In fact, now that I have a computer and am older and have more writing chops, I take longer to finish a story. Because I can experiment with a whole new draft pushed in a whole new direction without having to retype the whole thing, I do so, and have a lot more drafts, and a lot of drafts which I discard, returning to the previous draft to continue forward. I've only finished and sent out a handful of stories at this point, and not a one of them has taken me under a year, and four drafts, to complete. Typewriters and longhand would not have slowed down this process.

When I get back to the nobble, though, it'll be interesting to see if this process changes significantly. I intend to retype, but I might end up not doing so. We'll see.

Reading Scalzi's post and the comments following has really made me wonder if the commenters are correct: would so many of them really be writing if it weren't for computers? I would still be writing if it weren't for computers. Hell, I was writing profusely, daily, for eleven years before I started using a computer. (I wasn't writing well, but that's another story.) So my admission that my computer-based process isn't much different from my longhand or typewriter-based process ... well, set those side by side. Does this mean that, deep inside our brains, my process and the wouldn't-write-without-a-computer people's processes are actually substantively different?

Are we, in this computer age, being inundated by the writing of people with a different writing process than the traditional one?

September 16, 2006

Amana Colonies

I took the morning/early afternoon off from driving today and went to visit the Amana Colonies in Amana, Iowa. This is out of interest for its own sake, but also research for the nobble.

Amana, known for their refrigerators and "radarange" microwaves, started out as a German pietist sect persecuted in Lutheran Germany, who emigrated to New York in the 1840s and thence to Iowa in the 1850s and 60s. They were communitarian, which is to say that they were communistic in some form; in this case they held all their land in common, worked it in common, cooked and ate food together, and got credit points for clothing and goods. They remained communitarian until 1932, much longer than most such religious utopian groups.

They called themselves "True Inspirationists" because they held that God appointed "instruments" (Werkzeuge) below whom he would inspire to speak (or write) out his word. If the inspiration were spoken, the inspired person had two scribes ready to hand to transcribe the speech. Often they would become inspired during their church service, although it could happen at any time.

I picked up there The Communistic Societies of the United States, From Personal Observations by Charles Nordhoff, who in 1874 traveled around to the most famous of the communitarian societies and wrote about them. The book contained this delicious tidbit:

In the year 1822 the (Amana) congregations appear to have attracted the attention of the English Quakers, for I find a notice that in December of that year they were visited by William Allen, a Quaker minister from London, who seems to have been a man of wealth. He inquired concerning their religious faith, and told them that he and his brethren at home were also subject to inspiration. He persuaded them to hold a meeting, at which by his desire they read the 14th chapter of John; and he told them that it was probable he would be moved of the Lord to speak to them.

But when they had read the chapter, and while they waited for the Quaker's inspiration, Barbara Heynemann was moved to speak. At this Allen became impatient and left the meeting; and in the evening he told the brethren that the Quaker inspiration was as real as their own, but that they did not write down what was spoken by their preachers; whereto he received for reply that it was not necessary, for it was evident that the Quakers had not the real inspiration, nor the proper and consecrated "instruments" to declare the will of the Lord; and so the Quaker went away on his journey home, apparently not much edified.

Oh, Snap!

People are people everytime, everywhere.

August 31, 2006

Bad News and Good News

Well, admissions are in order. Somehow, someway, the nobble has gone stale on me. I don't know exactly why, but since April, since I've been here at my parents' house, I have been unable to work on the damn thing.

This doesn't mean "writer's block", whatever that is (and I hate it when people ask me if I have writer's block. I'm sure they don't know what that's even supposed to mean!) I know what needs to be done on the book and I still have plenty of ideas. I just have no joy in the project right now. I didn't want to put it away and take the risk that it will simply never come back out again, but I think that's what I have to do now.

In Good News, the YA fantasy trilogy idea that's been floating around my head all year without landing because it was all abstractions and no images, finally threw out an image (and boy, was it a doozy!) yesterday, and I wrote the first two or three pages (longhand!)

I'm excited about it and I can't wait to get going on it. I even have a title for the first one: "The Sixth Element", which is boring, I know, but very fitting. I was thinking of de-boring-ing it by making it "The Sixth Source" but that's hard to pronounce and hardly less boring. But I like the second book title (so far) a lot better: "The Tendency of Magic is Toward Balance" or maybe just "The Tendency of Magic".

So, poor Chinaman Treetops needs to go away for awhile. Let's all hope it comes back. Sigh.

August 25, 2006

Reading Update

Now I'm reading Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. Finally. Will keep you all apprised.

Have also read Adolfo Bioy Casares' The Invention of Morel, which his cronies called a perfect novel and all that. I wasn't terribly impressed. I'm glad he wrote science fictiony 'n' all, but I can't be relied upon to give a shit about any of the 5 million 20th Century novels that set unsympathetic protagonists to fall in love with beautiful, but unresponsive women, and show off how despicably they can behave. Why does modern and contemporary fiction have to be about malaise? Why can't it be about energy?

I've started Sesshu Foster's Atomik Aztex, which I'm sort of reading as a companion piece to Hogan's High Aztech. Both reference Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo, which rocked my world and blew my mind when I read it only about two years ago, but the details of which I've already mostly forgotten. I will have to read it again.

I'm thinking of Mumbo Jumbo and derivatives as a sort of descent line from the American "ethnic novel": one line of descent therefrom. There are, of course, others. I'm thinking of Delany as another descent line, but it could be that he's just unique. I mean, really, who writes like him? More on all this later.

August 24, 2006

Privilege of the Sword

Okay, so I've finished The Privilege of the Sword, and I couldn't put it down.

That phrase "couldn't put it down" usually just stands for "this was really good!", but in this case, it was literal. I had to carry it around with me in my purse, and yanked it out for a read every chance I got. That's how much I didn't know what was going to happen next.

Inevitably, the ending disappointed a little. Kushner resolved one major tension about fifty pages from the end---a terrible mistake, because the other tensions' resolution were sapped of much of the energy they would otherwise have had, had they all been resolved at once. The "everything's good now!" scene at the end was far, far too happy and uncomplicated for such a complex world, and didn't come across as quite real, thereby ruining the happy ending Kushner had very ably earned. (and I'm not spoiling anything by saying there's a happy ending. Although the narrative is unfamiliar, she does, as such narratives must, telegraph the inevitability of a (sort of) happy ending by the middle of the book. Otherwise that much uncertainty would be bad for fiction.)

And the pov and person shifts are undergraduate---high school even. I have no idea how a writer of Kushner's quality let herself get away with such a basic and distracting mistake, much less how her editor let her get away with it. There were times when I wanted to throw the book across the room ... but then that would have been putting it down. Which we've already established I could not do.

Apart from this (essential yet not soul-destroying) problem, and occasional thudding prose moments, and more frequent mundane prose moments, Kushner does show her chops in the overall effect of the book. Essentially a bildungsroman about the upbringing of a teenage girl in a male tradition of swordsmanship, the book contains a long interlude in which our heroine is trained by the leading swordsman of the day. This interlude tells us clearly and poignantly how happy she is in that situation, how the training brings her a satisfaction she has never before felt in her life. Throughout, Kushner does not once use value words, or the word "happy". She never once tells us how the protag feels. It is from the simplicity of the language, the way the landscape and actions are described, that this section of the book derives its luminance. And this undefined, untranscribed luminance then infuses the heroine's character thereafter, giving her character stature in our eyes, and her actions and decisions consequence.

And this is an essential, if perhaps unconscious, theme of the novel: that past happiness is what gives strength and consequence and virtue to character. That the interlude of past happiness must be honored and protected for a character to maintain her strength, consequence, and virtue. I love that this is never spoken in the novel, never hinted at by the narrator, or discussed among the characters. Perhaps this theme is so well protected, so subtly and satisfyingly revealed, because the author herself wasn't entirely aware of it. Whatever. Doesn't matter. It's a writing lesson for me.

Ultimately, I was slightly disappointed by the book. It chose a TKO, rather than leaving a bloody corpse on the canvas. There was no real catharsis, and the characters' passage was frittered away at the end over the course of fifty unnecessary pages. I also didn't feel that six months was enough time, even in the life of a fifteen-year-old girl, to effect the kind of character change that happened to our heroine.

Again, whatever. This is a good book, much better than most contemporary genre or lit fic you'll read. Why? Because, as I wrote in my last post, it defies narrative expectations, without once leaving the confines of its narrative tradition. It is not metafiction, not "experimentation". It works at following its characters' actual psychological logic, rather than the logic of a prefabricated plot. So much of genre and lit fic make hay out of permutations of these pre-set plots. And by the plots I don't just mean the broad beams of structure (boy meets girl, boy loses girl, etc.) but also the details of how one gets from A to B to C. (Boy meets girl at a dinner party or spaceport. Boy asks girl out to dinner. They have a witty conversation. They have sex. Their internal psychology reveals their baggage throughout. We know thereafter to expect him to freak out about his deadbeat dad---or about being raised by an AI---and her to react strongly to the death of her grandmother---or the impounding of her father's space shuttle, which she's inherited. etc.)

But in this novel, Beauty enters the hall of the Beast. So far so expected. Here we expect him to be portrayed either as evil, or as good masked by a rough exterior. He is neither. Nor is he comically faulty. He is a serious, dangerous, and attractive figure, whose intentions toward Beauty are both selfish and well-intentioned, both genuinely dangerous to her, and an opportunity for her to grow. And it takes the whole novel to establish that.

In this novel, clearly a bildungsroman, our young protagonist is surrounded by sex and love affairs, and is offered not the traditional two, but rather five (or more) potential lovers, some violently inappropriate to her, and it takes most of the book to discover which one she'll even feel most drawn to, much less which one we want her to take. It's a masterful piece of characterization (and observation of teenaged girls), that the most likely potential lover, according to tradition, is the one she seems to forget most when the chips are down.

In this novel, there is no magic, although the alternate secondary world of lords and ladies and swordsmen, and (barely hinted at) multiple gods seems to cry out for a ragged sorcerer or two. Even the chess sets have wizards instead of bishops, but no wizards appear. This is a minor, and very subtle, tension in the book, that so much of what we expect never materializes, and what does materialize isn't exactly what we expected, although it does fit quite well. The world-building is exquisite. I can't remember a single instance of the first or third person narrators recording an infodump, or explaining a situation at all. At most, the first person protag will explain her relationship to a character. Everything is revealed through description, action, detail, gesture, dialogue.

All of which makes the unfinished, early-draft feel of this novel so frustrating. Already it's better than most of what I'll be reading this year. But, with another draft, with the help of a competent editor, it could have been a great novel. This, after all, is what I think sf/f genre has so much potential for: to kill off the structural mundanity of literary fiction without killing off the novel form.

I think what we need is to allow second and third editions of novels: to allow authors to revise really good novels that could have been really great and make them great even after they've already been published.

August 23, 2006

Swords and Sorcery

About 140 pages into Ellen Kushner's The Privilege of the Sword, I identified the slight discomfort and excitement that I was starting to feel in spades: I have no idea where this story is going.

Sure, there are hints. There's an old, somehow lost love that could be revived. There's a political intrigue to be unwound. But the two main viewpoint characters, both young girls, are not being presented in the normal way. Their desires are changing, as 15-year-old girls' desires tend to do, and I have no idea where they'll end up.

Do you know how rare this is? I'm well able to suspend disbelief to the point of being surprised by plot twists I know very well are coming (this is essential to enjoying contemporary fiction, I think) but to be genuinely surprised---or merely to anticipate genuine surprise because I recognize for a change that I'm in an unfamiliar narrative---is a very rare treat.

It could all still go to hell, and I could also wish that the (mostly very workable) writing were better. (The pov and person shifts are pointless and distracting.) But I'm really enjoying this right now.

Oh yeah, and I'm finally working again.

July 30, 2006

Fad Writing and Morality

Regarding "Strunk and Light" fussiness, I do feel, strongly, that bad language affects all readers at a deep but subtle level. For early readers (and by "early, I mean both young readers and adults who haven't read very much and are therefore as susceptible as young readers to the power of written language), poor or lazy usages become elevated in their minds as "proper" or even "literary" usage, and teaches and/or confirms them in bad habits at a time when they should be learning good ones. (I think now more than ever, it's not so much an individual's lack of education that makes his/her writing bad as it is the lack of education of the bloggers and novelists s/he reads.)

More experienced readers will be more sensitive to language fads, without being at all critical about them. These will pick up on the fads even more readily and propagate them in their own speech and writing, as well as in their patronization of writers who use these faddish techniques. In fact, language-sensitive folks who collect enough faddish chops often feel empowered by their usage of faddish techniques to become writers in the first place. Their sensitivity towards the shape and sound of their own writing tells them that they are writing fashionably, which they will articulate to themselves as "beautifully". Feedback from others confirms this.

Disclaimer: this is as much, or more, self-accusation as anything else. Reading over my blog entries from a year and two years ago, I'm finding massive usage of Strunk and Light-prohibited items. I know that faddishness is a phase of adolescence, and writers have a writing adolescence they must get through as well. Pray it be short.

Unfortunately, writers themselves, who should be the most sensitive to such errors, are often the most susceptible. This is, I stronlgy believe, because of creative writing programs, which have come to substitute an MFA as a writing credential in place of long years of hard publishing experience. (This refers to me as much as most. I have one "legit" publication and an MFA. Apparently, this entitles me to teach seven writing classes.) Too often, writers receive an MFA at a still juvenile phase of their writing development (I don't think I'm a writing juvenile anymore, but if I'm wrong, who gets to debate my MFA?)

But the MFA and the finished thesis are enough for a publishing world more fixated on comforting novelty than on challenging maturity. So you have a literary world flooded by writers of all ages whose writing minds are still in teenagerhood: delighting in and flaunting linguistic fads, ignoring the style, simplicity, and elegance of maturity, some elements of which will always be of their era, and others of which are timeless.

Like teenagers who see their elders settling into a personal style of dress, these writers miss their elders' subtle, but constant, experimentation with style, structure, music, etc., and see maturity as a sort of death or "mellowing". In this description, I can see myself still; my experimentations are still fairly wild, brazen, and completely predictable., like teen piercing her nose, shaving her head, or getting a tattoo.

In the visual and time-based art world this is called "student work". Curators recognize it instantly. That phrase is a dismissal, both contemptuous and tolerant, understanding that if the artist persists with integrity, this phase will pass.

Because the elements of student work in the fine arts appear to be less easily catalogued, less easily articulated, it is, or should be, much easier in the art world to use accusations of jejunity to dismiss artwork for reasons other than immaturity---reasons such as racism or sexism, for example, work that challenges prevailing ideas too much. I said "should be" easier in art than in writing because the literary world is absolutely obsessed with formal writing education; hundreds of books are currently in print taxonomizing the crafts of fiction, poetry, memoir, playwriting, screenwriting, etc. No one should have any trouble identifying what is supposed to make up "good writing", according to the literary establishment.

My guess, from experience, however, is that no one is actually reading these books. My MFA workshops had their own vocabulary about writing, but no one actually discussed (using any vocabulary) structure/plotting, characterization, or setting. Excuse me, from my position in realizing-too-late-land, but how the fuck do you learn fiction writing without directly addressing how to plot, populate, and set your stories?

I have both a BA and an MFA in creative writing, from two of the most respected (if not competitive or revered) programs in the country (University of Arizona and San Francisco State) and I did not learn a single solid element of craft from any of the many classes and workshops I took. Everything I know about the formal craft of fiction writing comes from my own experience, books I've read (especially Goldman's Writing Down the Bones, Orwell's essays, and Delany's About Writing), watching a few of my talented classmates teach their own classes (Ali Baker in particular), and having to codify formal writing by teaching myself.

I've also had to invent my own vocabulary, because no commonly understood vocabulary exists to discuss writing in English. There's the workshop vocabulary, a variety of popular critical vocabularies, the academic vocabulary of the post-structuralist scholar and the other academic vocabulary of the obsolete (if only they would know it) New Criticism/close reading scholar. Then there's whatever you make up and use on your blog, which last one, scarily enough, is beginning to prevail.

Thus, it's not the smartest or most educated voices that are heard about writing---it's the loudest and most fashionable. In the writing world, right now, it is the teenagers who are taking over the school. The indy and online journals and blogs that tell you what to read are run by twenty-- and early thirty-somethings, those unmarried and childless souls (guilty!) who have the time to throw away unsalaried, for the love of it. Needless to say, they do not name their school of thought, nor explicate their critical sources. Good for them, and all that, but if I'm naked, I want to be led by someone who's ... well, not blind.

And our blind guides? Still, despite internet freedom and anarchy and democracy and all that, predominantly white, middle-class, straight, and, as things progress upwards, male. And the writers they are drawn to? With the exception of the always and perennial usual suspects like Zadie Smith (the Whoopi Goldberg of lit fic), Monica Ali, and um ... um ... well, with the exception of the usual, nonthreatening suspects (who are always Brits anyway), the writers they discuss are always like them: white, straight, middle class, and male in the upper parts of the parabola.

It is, in fact, easier to dismiss threateningly challenging, or merely culturally unfamiliar, writing than it is to dismiss the same qualities in visual art. The internet revolution in writing is mirrored by the street art revolution in visual art ... and so the democratizing of visual art has genuinely made it more public, whereas writing always does, and always will, have a skin around it that indifference will make the reader bounce off of. This skin around writing is what makes literary gatekeepers so important. Our contemporary lit gatekeepers are getting more and more ignorant---in fact, they seem to be getting more ignorant in indirect proportion to their decibel level.

I'm leading into all of this because these seemingly craft-related issues I'm raising here have implications for writerly integrity on many fronts: that of artistic integrity, of integrity in social responsibility and ethics, of moral integrity, and so forth.

And let me be clear here: I'm not one of those people who is going to curry favor with an American public operating on received ideas by discounting the importance of my art. Most writers---even expressly political writers---start by saying that they don't expect their novels to set the world on fire. Well, why the fuck not? Mary Shelley, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Upton Sinclair, H.G. Wells, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, William S. Burroughs, and Salman Rushdie did expect it, and guess what?

In all reality, I don't expect my current nobble (may it ever be published) to set the world on fire because, although it's critical and, I hope, challenging, it doesn't address really controversial subjects, so it's not going to piss people off, or inspire them all that much, no matter how good it might be. But, not at all secretly, and not at all deep-down, I'm hoping it does just that. And my next novel? Will be written to set the world on fire. Because this writing is what I've chosen to be my life project. This is what I've been putting, and continue to put what my yoga teacher calls my "best self" into. I'm in love with my nobble, and it's not just a teenage crush. This is how I"m participating in the world, and I'm trying to do it as an adult.

If I didn't hope to, desire to, and (let's be honest), however ridiculously see the potential for me to set the world on fire with my writing ... then I wouldn't do it. Why the fuck would I give myself to something less than that? Why would I demand less of myself than that? And why would I claim the attention of an intelligent reading world with less than an attempt to engulf my world in flame, in flame?

All of which ecstasy brings us back to the issue of fad writing, writing which, Orwell tells us, obscures the meaning it appears to seek to convey. Through faddish usage, writers can express their literariness without actually having to tell a story or produce an image, or offer a rational thought. Faddish writing isn't about communication at all. It is ultimately only about the writer making him/herself look/sound good. It's disposable, despicable, immoral. Fad writing will not set the world on fire.

So I'm going to address writing fads I've been noticing the last few years in the next few posts. That is all.

July 21, 2006

Ignorance Ignorance

So much of my first draft was just placeholders. "Here, in this spot, something like this happens." I've got crap like that everywhere. I've spent the summer, so far, on the first five of what is now 17 chapters, rewriting and rewriting and rewriting that, because I can't rewrite the later chapters until I understand the earlier chapters.

For example, Leonard, my most verbose speaker (and the newcomer to the Martian colony, so he gets to lay out the whole world) is gay and not happy about it. You'd think this would be fairly straightforward---or at least I thought this would be fairly straightforward. But everything about his gay life and loves came out false-seeming in the rough. So I've been doing a lot of reading and discovering mainly how little I actually know about gay life and community now, not to mention a hundred years ago.

I have no "instincts" about a community that's closed to me. I've been bugging my queer friends and reading reading reading. I am so ignorant. I seem to get more ignorant the more I know. Leonard's central scene (literally central in the nobble, and the scene around which his earlier and later actions hinge) is completely opaque to me. What would happen here? Why would it happen? How would it play out? What would motivate these men and how would Leo respond to all of this? I know what needs to happen in this scene for the plot to move forward but I have no idea how it's going to work.

And here I was thinking that the rough draft was such an achievement.

And when this whole gay thing is all done, I'm going to have to tackle the woman thing and the immigrant thing. At least I have an in to both of those, but who knows? That might be more of a handicap and not less.

argh

June 17, 2006

Children's Letters

Found a nifty thing today, doin' online research.

I was looking for letters from children to serve as models. One of my main correspondents in the nobble is a boy of 11 at the beginning of the book -- by the end he has turned 14. (Yes, Chinaman Treetops is epistolary. It's an epistolary fin de siécle feng shui novel on Mars.) I keep feeling that the bad spelling/writing skills I give him are stereotypical and I need models of children's writing from age 10 to 15 to see what the range of language acquisition is. This is a really smart kid, but one very sheltered from the world and with few educational resources.

Anyway, extensive google searching only turned up a limited archive of begging letters kids in the Great Depression sent to Eleanor Roosevelt (some of them very sad) asking for clothing or money or other things, and this archive of facsimiles of letters by children in Badsey, Worcestershire in the 1930s.

In April 1933, Mr Frank Amos, Headmaster of Badsey Council School, asked his students to write to Sir John Russell, of Rothamsted Experimental Station, in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, describing their life in a market gardening district. Whether Russell contacted the school for information, or whether Amos initiated contact is not known. Copies of the letters are deposited in the Worcestershire Record Office, with a title, "Letters written by local rural school children in the Vale of Evesham to Sir John Russell (Rothamsted); the letters relate to the children’s life in agriculture and market gardening." The vast majority of the letters are by Badsey pupils, though a few are from a school in Pershore. They provide a remarkable insight of life in market gardening families of nearly 70 years ago.

It's about 30 years too late, and the wrong idiom to boot, but what a find! The kids range in age from 8 to 13 (perfect), and the letters are deliberately expository, describing their lives for an adult stranger unfamiliar with such (my child, Tommy, is writing letters about his life back home to his aunt on Earth). And since they're facsimiles of the letters, you can see their very neat penmanship. (The nobble's conceit is that it is an edited transcription of a photographic archive of letters from the Martian Colony.) Anyhoo, more time wasting happ'nin' here.

June 15, 2006

Orifice Supplies

Okay, so I did it. I tried to look at my old outline for da nobble and nearly had a meltdown (I didn't, though. My eyes just crossed.) So I decided to write a new outline, balked (this is not as lazy as it sounds. My stolen word processing software has a glitch which makes it hard to navigate quickly between two different files) and decided that I needed to write out my outline by hand. Then it Occured To Me that I could put the "outline" on index cards instead, which would be handier, since I'm gonna rearrange a shitload of stuff. Then I went to the store, forgot to buy the index cards, and had to stop off at a grocery store with a small stationery section. Then, while selecting from the four types of index cards, my eye was caught by the post it notes instead. Agonizing decisionmaking processes later, I walked out the store with post its, posterboards, markers and tape.

I now have no further excuse not to get started today.

(BTW, did I never mention that da nobble is called "Chinaman Treetops"? Yes it is, and the title will just have to remain out of context for a while longer. Yes, there is a Chinese involved. Yes he's a man. No, there are no trees. We're on Mars.)

June 11, 2006

Novel Drafts

Just a thought from yesterday:

My first draft was entirely to please myself; that is, to please and satisfy my sense of what the draft should become. To discover what the novel was going to be and let that become itself. Which is to say, the novel is me, a 3.5-year-long exposure snapshot of the inside of that portion of my head/soul. Something like that. I don't know. I don't know!

My second draft, so far, seems to be about taking care of a prospective audience. Not pandering to them, taking care of them. The first draft was planning the cruise to the Cape of Good Hope. So far now I'm seeing to it that the passengers aren't seasick and the shuffleboard decks are sanded. I'm building cabanas next to the pool and pointing out the schools of dolphins, and, of course, fitting the prow with steel to cut through those troublesome, unexpected mid-Atlantic ice-floes. If later on, someone comes and said they had rather we went to Greenland, or wish we'd flown instead, I'll invite them to my cabin for dinner, but no more. I'll do everything I can to make them comfortable, but if they don't want this cruise, I have some real estate to offer, right there, at the end of that short plank.

Fascinating, learning to write a novel.

(Plus, you know the cruise ship metaphor? That would have nothing to do with reading Naomi Novik. Nothing at all.)

June 10, 2006

Posts I Would Like to Write

1. Something on cultural appropriation and cultural misappropriation -- jes' 'cause. (Not that I need to. yhlee and oycester over at live journal have done a bang up job as it is.)
2. A response to Hal Duncan's post about same.
3. My central posting about hybridity , which I've put off for over a month now.
4. Something on Geoff Ryman's wonderful Air, which I just read and feel deserves a chapter in the hybridity book, not to mention the cultural appropriation discussion.
5. A raving wonderful review of Naomi Novik's His Majesty's Dragon, which is the perfect (no exaggermatation) fantasy/action/boy-and-his-dragon/bildungsroman. Just perfect: perfectly structured, perfectly written, no flaws or catches anywhere.

BUT, I cannot write any of these for the best of all possible reasons: I am actually working on my novel again. I am actually revising it. Right now. I actually got some work done on it today and plan on getting more work done on it tomorrow.

So I will write more lovely posts when I've been working for a while and need a brain break. Until then, maybe some links or something.

Sorry!

May 14, 2006

Map of Speculative Fiction

Specgenredefsimage

Michael Chabon sez:

Maybe, as I suggested above, the most useful way to think of the various literary genres is not as linked but discrete rooms in a house or red-lined sections in a bookstore, but as regions on a map, the map of fiction. I would put the country of romance at the center of this map, but as with all maps there is no real center, only a set of conventions. And as with the regions on a map, on the map of fiction there is overlap: sometimes it can be hard to say where science fiction shades unambiguously into fantasy, or horror into gothic romance, or mainstream, literary fiction, into any of its neighboring genres.
(thanks to Marrije for directing me here.)

A couple years ago I taught a couple of speculative fiction writing classes: one to adults and one to high-schoolers. My definition of "speculative fiction" (which broadly includes science fiction, fantasy, magical realism, and supernatural horror) depended upon Darko Suvin's: that speculative fiction contains a "novum". Suvin's "novum" refers to the "new" element, the element of the world or the narrative that does not exist in consensus reality, or in the "realistic" world mimicked in "literary fiction", which I took to calling "mimetic fiction".

The novum can be something simple and singular, like the possibility of a ghost in Henry James' The Turn of the Screw. Or it can be complex and infuse the world, like the entirety of Tolkiens' Lord of the Rings, from the species of the protagonists to texture and objects and landscapes and languages of the world they live in.

To make this concept more clear, I created a diagram, which you see above. Please note that I created this merely to explain how the various speculative genres were (broadly) defined, not to recast the literary world with spec fic as its ruling perspective.

But the result, I think, is interesting. In dividing "speculative" from "mimetic" fiction, the one with a novum, the other without, I set up an artificial distinction that grouped the "realism" of literary fiction with the exaggerated, but nevertheless "realistic" (because they do not deal with nova) genre tropes of romance, mystery, thriller, western, etc. This in itself is pretty cool, because it forces literary fiction into bed with dirty genre (as if all characters thinking and speaking in poetic, revelatory, Joycean diction were "realistic" rather than generic.)

But more than this incidence of strange bedfellows, the diagram seperates fiction entirely according to type of content. If it deals with objects not of this world, on this map it is centered. If it deals with things herein findable, it is marginalized. "Meta" fiction, that which acknowledges a reality external to the fiction, is thrust entirely out of the diagram altogether.

It's a strange view, not the view of literature that a science fiction fan has. It's a very peculiarly biased academic view, created for a specific pedagogic purpose, and offering a terribly distorted vision of literature.

But then why "terribly" distorted? Why, in fiction, have we decided to privilege mimesis (such as it is) rather than untrammeled fantasy? Why in fiction, where virtue lies in untruth, or maybe unfact? Why isn't the diagram above true to our predominant literary view?

(cross-posted at atlas(t).)

May 04, 2006

Butt. In. Chair.

ehn ...

must ... work ... on ... novel ...

must ...

April 24, 2006

Nothing to Report

I'm still reading and taking notes on the first draft of my nobble. When that's done I can start going back in and rearranging. I thought this effort would be about reduction, but it turns out I need to add still more stuff before I can start taking stuff out.

Which is all by way of saying that I have nothing to report. My mind is a blanky-blankity-blank. Of course, stuff is going on in the mapping world, so check out my other blog.

Good night and good luck.

April 19, 2006

What is the Purpose of Criticism?

Charlie Anders (author of Choir Boy) addresses this question--responding to the flap about Michiko Kakutani in Slate--in her blog (unfortunately, she's doing the barebones blog thing so there's no permalink. Just go here and find "[2006/04/12 8:08 pm]")

I definitely lean towards the friendly/balanced school of criticism. Having read one or two reviews of Choir Boy that made me feel pretty demoralized, I don't really want to inflict that on any other writers. At the same time, I'm pretty clear that my mission as a book reviewer is just to let people know whether a book is worth buying and reading.

(A side note: I've always thought that there's no point in writing a negative review of an obscure or independent book. Most people won't even have heard of it, so screaming "don't buy this book you've never heard of!" seems kind of pointless and mean.)

Actually, the first question any book review should answer isn't, "will I like this book?" but rather, "why should I even care about this book? What's interesting about it?" ... And then you do have to address the "does it suck?" question. I have to admit, I go about this somewhat obliquely. Partly because I try to see the good in everything, and partly because I'm still a peon and don't want to overstep my authority. ... It's true that different people have different tastes, and you might love a book that I kind of hated.

I'm not going to state here that Charlie's wrong. I think different reviewers need to have different missions, and that, to keep the book-buying business alive and well, we need reviewers who quite simply tell a book-buying audience whether or not to buy a book. I also agree wholeheartedly that most reviewers need to be boosters for books -- giving people a reason to buy books, rather than a reason to spend that money on a movie instead.

However, I do think that all reviewers need to at least be aware of the "higher" purpose of serving and furthering an art form. (Let's pause here for you to cringe.)

It's easier now than it ever was to get a novel or a memoir published, and easier now than ever to get it read. Yes, despite the moaning and groaning, if you look at the numbers the right way, you'll see that more books are actually being bought than ever before. (Unfortunately, I'm too lazy right now to look up the stats and do the math. Will do some other time maybe.) What this means is not that we have more people working together to study, enhance and further the art form/s, but rather that we have more pressure on barely competent writers to produce, produce, produce. The stick is short deadlines for drafts. The carrot is three-book deals on the one hand, and warm reception on the other.

Literature is indeed walking forward; memoir and fiction have and continue to meld and affect one another. However, given the sheer amount of memoirish fiction and fictional memoir that has been produced in the past decade, it's shocking, appalling and lots of other prudish, literary -ings, that the last even minor literary "breakthrough" on this front was A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius six or seven years ago. Since then, there have been a lot of imitators, and even more people who neither imitated nor innovated, but simply took Heartbreaking Work's success as an excuse to walk backward to a satiate, safe, and unchallenging prose style telling stories that they know will be well received because they have been told so often before.

Readers--perfectly intelligent, literate and well-educated readers--will naturally, in an initial phase of learning to read books, be hostile to the things they read that are unexpected, unusual (to them) and challenging. Anyone who has taught literature or taught writing by having students read literature will be aware that hostility to the new and challenging is not just typical, but almost necessary. The key is to not let your students get away with it. They can hate a book, but they also have to read it through and analyze it intelligently. And I guarantee you that the book they hated, the book they so competently and passionately analyzed to pieces on their final exam, is the one that will stay with them, that will affect they way they think about life, and will inform their ideas about sophistication and competence in literature in the years to come.

But in the process of taking book production from a manufacturing industry to a service industry (like Wal-mart or McDonald's) the book industry has turned from offering art and forcing those who want art to take what they're offered, to mass-producing entertainment, and enticing people to buy it by packaging it as art. Both publishers and critics are now letting readers get away with their hostility towards the new and the challenging. They are encouraging readers to ensconce the idea of literary art in a fixed set of plots (self-discovery, familial healing), fixed settings (urban or suburban, middle or upper middle class, white, professional circles), and fixed prose style ("poetic", with an emphasis on descriptions based on lists and visual metaphors) and techniques (indistinguishable first or close-third person, with voice indistinguishable from author's voice; obsessively shaped sentence structure and rhythm, emphasis on the turned phrase; beauty of authorial voice takes precedence over the needs of the story, etc.)

With these points being the hallmarks of "good writing", anything that doesn't follow suit is necessarily considered "bad writing", and anything that touches on these points is necessarily considered "good writing", whether it actually is or not. (And I would contend that anything that touches on these now cliched points is almost guaranteed to not be good, because you have to be a genius to write well through cliches.) Readers don't have to question, just passively receive. Anything that challenges this order is thrown across the room (if you're me) or quietly dismissed with a "I just don't like to read that kind of thing."

You never have to leave the zone of books that tell you the same comforting things over and over again.

The only thing that can possibly counteract the walmartization of book production is competent, purposeful criticism. If that. Because if the reading public, the self-selected, self-described literary top-percentiles are accepting the description of good literature I've outlined above (and they are), then it is because the critics who truly shape opinion are either permitting this, or actively promoting it. I rather think it's the former: that critics permit this because they're stuck in a book-by-book critical mode, seeking to place the book in its own context, but not in the context of literature in the early 21st century, not in the context of literature against the background of its own traditions, or of the future annihilation it faces as new entertainment media become increasingly culturally sophisticated--become, in short, art forms.

As literature becomes increasingly personal, it becomes increasingly self-absorbed and cut off from the implication of interaction with society in general. New digital media can stand this transformation and continue to turn it on its head--I don't think printed literature can. As it grows more personal, literature ceases to challenge and produce new ideas. As it ceases to challenge and renew, so it dies. And for those of us who love words on a page, this is simply unacceptable.

I want to see critics who write every review in full knowledge of these trends, in full consciousness of the tradition both they and their subjects are writing in, in full awareness of their role in supporting an ancient art form. I want critics to use every book as a positive or negative example of how the art is being developed (or not) and where it is (or isn't) going. I want critics to give every book its due respect, by respectfully reaming those books with no ambition, no art, no challenge. I want even a book that passes that basic test (does it challenge, or seek to present something new, or seek to develop an aspect of the art form in an interesting way?) to be thoroughly analyzed for how it does it. I want reviews to teach me more about the art of writing than I already know myself (because how sad is it when a review is less knowledgeable about writing than I am?) I want to be able to read reviews of books to get an overview of the state of the art--no, in fact more than that: I want to read reviews for their own sake, because reading books, and thinking about books, and having my own perspective on books won't be enough for me. I want someone brilliant and supremely knowledgeable to enhance my enjoyment of books with a view that I could never have. I want reviews that are reading material in themselves, and not just conduits to reading material.

Is that too much to ask?

March 20, 2006

Rezzies 'n' Fellies

MacDowell Colony (New Hampshire) ................REJECTED!

but with a very nice letter.

Mars Description II

I spent yesterday with my friend Jaime in his studio, reading through the novel and making notes (I'm still not done!) and I found this description of Mars, which comes in the first half of the book but which I added near the end of writing the first draft. So it's pretty much the latest description of Mars that I have, which is sort of an end parenthesis to the earliest description of Mars that I posted earlier. Compare and contrast, if you'd like.

(Note: this is Leonard Lord, about a year after the last description. He's just climbed Olympus Mons, the biggest volcano in the solar system.)

I had never been this high off of the ground, this far up. I've never been 16 miles high before. It seems like it should be a euphemism for something. It was nearly impossible to encompass. This was the view I came to Mars for. I had imagined that the bubble ships would be like real ships, approaching a goal slowly, so that for days you could see the shore approaching and approaching, and when you landed, you had the prospect of an unbroken line of land to breach, coming ever nearer, resolving itself slowly into trees, and brakes, and huts, and Indians in canoes ... details. I had thought -- imagined -- that approaching Mars would be something like that, that first we would see a star. Then, more and more, a ball of rock, like Earth, only redder and more strange. Halfway through the trip it would be like the moon to us: something with features we could see, barely, with much squinting, Then the slowing approach, as to a strange shore, with the disc of the planet growing larger and larger and more and more like a world to us, until we were no longer approaching it but in it, and the features on the ground resolved themselves into cities, then individual houses, then the tops of men's heads. I was really looking forward to this, to seeing what a world looked like from so far above, watching a world resolve itself out of a star.

As you know, I was cheated of this view. That is, until the past weeks, when I went up Olympus. The crater is only 75 miles across so it comes to a point and that point, if you think about it, is about as high in the air as I would have been when the details of the planet started to become clear to me on my imaginary ship. It is not quite the same thing, but it is so close that I feel that I have arrived again-or perhaps I have arrived finally, for I feel that something here belongs to me. I have earned something.

What does it look like? Oh Freddy, I've been avoiding the question, for it is nearly impossible to describe. How can you explain being on a planet and yet standing above it as well? You will be thinking of our trip through the Donner Pass (ill-fated trip as it was) and the views we had of the Plains, but it is so much more than that. From the top of Olympus I could not only see the entire disc of the planet 360 degrees around me, but I could also see the curve of the surface. We have never seen this, you and I. We've stood on mountain tops and taken measurements against the next mountain top and proven to our satisfaction that the Earth is, indeed, a sphere, but we have never seen the floor of the Earth curving, like the ball it is. On Olympus I saw the planet I stood on -- the ground beneath my feet that held me aloft -- I saw it curving beneath me.

Directly over our heads was a bank of clouds. As we climbed, we'd seen these collecting every morning and then dissipating in the afternoon. The cloudbank was thick enough to filter the sun and the top surface of our outer clothing was cooler than I'd ever felt it since I arrived on Mars. Also, the glare of the suns rays around our eyes was lessened. The very air seemed clearer. Thus, I had a better view of the world than I had had since I arrived. I could see the variations in pink and orange and brown and grey on the ground now. I could see the patterns of the wind shifting the bright yellow and white/salmon dusts across the desert floor. Here was a patch of dunes, like the rippling of burned skin, but much more regular and smooth and beautiful. The waved shadows on the dunes' dark sides grew shorter quickly as the sun rose to its zenith. There was a bare ground of rocks and gravels, the rocks looking more and then less black as I stared at them, trying to make out what their exact color was. They were volcanic rock, no doubt, as all the bedrock in this region is, but pocked with air bubbles, broken and jagged and occasionally reaching for the sky, laid bare -- today only -- who knows about tomorrow -- by the fickle, bright dust that went to play elsewhere for awhile, perhaps forever. And over there, if I turned entirely away, a river of lava, looking exactly like molasses spilled onto a countertop and left by a lazy housewife to harden. There are river flows such as these leaking from this mountain's every pore; this was, perhaps is still, a volcano, but a volcano of a might and power that we have no idea of on Earth. For eons this volcano has been bubbling and spitting and overflowing, with no soul to see it, hear it, or to fear for its life. Fire. Fire!

March 18, 2006

Residencies 'n' Fellowships

I've been in an extremely bad mood for the past four months or so (oh, you didn't notice? ... shut up!) and here's why:

Hedgebrook (Washington state) .....................................REJECTED!
Kimmel Harding Nelson (Nebraska) ................................REJECTED!
Millay Colony (New York) ..............................................REJECTED!
Ledig House Art Omi International (New York) .................REJECTED!
Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center(Massachusetts) ... waiting ... waiting ...
Axton Fellowship University of Louisville (Kentucky) ... waiting ... waiting ...
Ragdale Foundation (Lake Forest, IL) ... waiting ... waiting ...
MacDowell Colony (New Hampshire) ... waiting ... waiting ...
Jentel Artist Residency Program (Sheridan, Wyoming)......REJECTED!
Colgate University Olive B. O'Connor Fellowship (New York) ... waiting ... waiting ...
Deep Springs Writer in Res (California) .........................REJECTED!
Anderson Center (Minnesota) .......................................REJECTED!
Norton Island Residency Program ... waiting ... waiting ...
University of Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing ... waiting ... waiting ...
Steinbeck Fellowship (San Jose State) ... waiting ... waiting ...
McCullers Center (Georgia) ... Still. Need. To apply.
Sacatar Foundation (Bahia, Brazil) ... Still. Need. To apply.
Albee Foundation Residency (Montauk, New York) ... Still. Need. To apply.
Island Institute (Alaska) ... Still. Need. To apply.
Caldera (Blue Lake Oregon) ... Still. Need. To apply.
Headlands Center for the Arts (Bay Area) ... Still. Need. To apply.
Julia and David White artists colony (Costa Rica) ... Still. Need. To apply.
Kerouac Project of Orlando (Florida) ... Still. Need. To apply.
Hidden River Arts (Delaware) ... Still. Need. To apply.
American Academy of Berlin ... Still. Need. To apply.
Yaddo (New York) MISSED OUT!!!
I-Park (Connecticut) CAN'T APPLY THIS YEAR FOR SOME REASON I'VE FORGOTTEN!
Edelstein Keller Fellowship at University of Minnesota CAN'T APPLY THIS YEAR FOR SOME REASON I'VE FORGOTTEN!
Emory University Creative Writing Fellowship CAN'T APPLY THIS YEAR FOR SOME REASON I'VE FORGOTTEN!
NEA Creative Writing Fellowships NO WAY IN HELL I'M GONNA GET THIS!
Philip Roth Creative Writing Residency at Bucknell CAN'T APPLY THIS YEAR FOR SOME REASON I'VE FORGOTTEN!

I was considering including links to each website, but your Google finger isn't broken, and I don't like you that much.

March 16, 2006

Elegies to Octavia (Continually Updated)

I've been collecting these since she died. The visceral experiences caused by reading her books are amazing. Please post any writing on Octavia in the comments, or send them to me and I'll update the post itself with a quote.

I am sad beyond words. Stunned. One of our most perceptive and talented, brave writers has crossed over, but what a gift she has left us. Such a fine and broad body of work for us to remember and explore. I've learned so much about myself simply from entering her words on the page ... Octavia's impact on my life is personal, deep, and I have heard the same from so many other readers who felt that their lives had literally changed after experiencing her work ... There is so much I could say, but I would just invite you all to revisit her work and pass it on to a new friend, pass it on to a growing reader. --Sheree Renée Thomas

I remember when someone mentioned to me that Samuel R. Delany, the author of the award-winning novel Dahlgren, happened to be black. I was as stunned as a young, African-American, science-fiction-loving geek could be. All my close friends were big into science fiction, and not all of us were such pootbutts that outside of a library we spent our time cowering from gangbangers, though that was often the case. Science fiction explained our weird-ass dysfunctional lives better than any social realism, but I don't think any of us thought we should or could write science fiction about our lives ... So when I first heard of Octavia Butler, it was like hearing about a black hockey player. -- Jervey Tervalon

Summer 1995, was a wild summer because it ended a chapter of my life thanks to a tropical storm and two hurricanes passing through, the last one trashing the boat I lived aboard and forcing my family to move to Ohio ... that night I lay huddled up in a sleeping bag and a flashlight reading "Wild Seed" as the Hurricane battered the house we stayed in, and I made it all the way to the eye of the hurricane having not paid a single bit of attention to what was going on on the other side of a brick wall several inches away from me. -- Tobias Buckell

At the time in the workshop, I was writing a story about an Efik woman in Nigeria who learned to fly. The story was set in the 1920's. This character was mean, selfish, promiscuous, strong willed and quite frankly, she disturbed me. When I read Wild Seed, I practically cried. There, in the book's pages, living in a remote Nigerian village long ago was Anyanwu, complex, Nigerian and mythical. It was after reading that book that I went through my own "transition" and started to call myself a writer of science fiction and fantasy. -- Nnedimma Okorafor Mbachu

I sensed a deep loneliness in Octavia, but also humor, vast intelligence, and a level of investment in her craft that was simply phenomenal ... What does it take to be a writer of such depth and courage?  I say, the capacity to dig into your own wounds, to fold yourself, concentrate yourself so purely into the work that your own life is eclipsed in comparison.  To live in the penumbra of your own work.  There are costs to this ...  -- Steven Barnes

"People really need to think what it's like to have all of society arrayed against you," she once said. But her work went far beyond simply mourning the victim. She showed us why repulsion cannot be avoided, why we often resemble what we hate, and why it is sometimes our best qualities that prevent us from accepting the differences of others. Her ability to both understand the outsider perspective better than others and then to invert it, places Butler above her science-fiction-writing peers. She is a disturbing and important writer... -- Tyler Cowen

I haven't read any of her books, but yet, I find myself sitting in front of the computer almost in tears...I thought I had time! I thought I had time to get to know her style, form a critique, maybe see her at a speech and then maybe walk up to her, pages in shaky hand, mouth dry, and ask her to look over my stuff ... it's just not fair, goddamn it, each new generation of radical women of color writers must learn the lessons, fight the fights, write our souls, without the mentorship of the very people that inspired us and gave us strength to write in the first place. -- brownfemipower at Women Of Color blog

My clearest memory of her is from a BayCon in the 1980s in San Jose. I had recently read C. S. Friedman's In Conquest Born, and thought it a mildly enjoyable first novel. Butler came by the table where I was selling books and said, in her distinctively beautiful gravelly voice, "That's the most racist book I ever read."
"Really?" I said. "Why?" (After all, everyone in it was white.)
"Because," she said, "the whole culture is built on valuing people by how they look."
*zap* *pow* *right to the heart of things*. -- Laurie Toby Edison & Debbie Notkin

I don't think many in the field ever realized how transformative she was ... Whenever people run that line about the period "before cyberpunk" being fallow and tame, I shake my head and realize how much farther we have to go. When Butler wrote about the effects of misused power on individuals, she blew those boys out of the water on every single page. She could be truly scary, in a way that splendidly illuminated this truly scary world. -- Scott Westerfeld

There was nowhere she wasn't willing to take you. She had a particular fascination with relationships of dominance and submission, master and slave, predator and prey. Though she always positioned herself on the side of the victims, she frequently focused on complicity, portraying such interactions as complicated and intimate. One cannot be eaten or raped without being touched. There was sometimes a narcotized pleasure built in on one side of the relationship or both. -- Karen Joy Fowler

I can't describe the look on her face but I know it well. Every woman I have loved and admired is capable of that look: the one that says "that's not good enough" and "I know you can do better," in a single glance. The perfect balance of disappointment and optimism that makes you understand it's only *you* selling yourself short. Then she said it out loud so I knew she REALLY meant it. "That's too bad," she said. "I'd like to see what else you can do." Sometimes I wonder why those words didn't crush me. Of course they were never intended to: she hit my "challenge" button with a vengeance. -- Eddie at "The Write Grrrl" blog

I’m sure most of us know the statistics of her career — the awards she won for her novels and stories, the fact that she was the only science fiction writer to win a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation “genuis grant.” But she was so much more than that. She often said that a lot of her work wasn’t science fiction. “You could call it ‘save-the-world fiction,’ but it clearly doesn’t save anything,” she said. “It just calls people’s attention to the fact that so much needs to be done, and obviously the people who are running this country don’t care.” -- Leslie Howle (and check out this link for other remembrances of Octavia.)

She was wickedly funny in a dry way that you could miss if you weren't paying attention. She was unfailingly courteous and kind. I think Brad Denton (2nd week) found us a little wild at times, Nalo (3rd week) found us almost sufficiently wild, and Connie Willis (4th week) would holler at us, in her fifth-grade-teacher voice, to "Settle Down!" -- but we didn't pull anything with Octavia, I can tell you. Not because we imagined that she would chide us (she wouldn't have) nor because we thought she might be wounded (ha! like we could wound her!), but because her dignity filled the room. You had the sense of what a crime it was to waste this life, to waste whatever God had given you. -- Benjamin Rosenbaum  (and check out this link for other remembrances of Octavia.)

Blessed with an I.Q., grades and S.A.T. scores good enough to get me into any college in the country, but unable to solve three-dimensional emotional issues with a one-dimensional 17-year-old mind, I found myself in a dark corner, in a basement, on a dingy yellow couch waiting to conduct what I’ll refer to now as a “business deal”.  ... As I sat there looking around the room and waiting, I noticed a small paperback book on a wobbly wooden table in the corner.  The cover had been ripped off and the pages were tattered and worn.  I started reading and before I knew it, I had followed Dana Franklin back into the early 1800’s – the book was Kindred and the author was Octavia Butler.  And there in that moment, I found a greater purpose – and what was, for me, a higher calling. -- D. Lee Hatchett

(And here again is my own blog entry about her.)

March 15, 2006

First Mars Description

In honor of Google Mars -- or rather, my excitement about Google Mars, which has not abated since yesterday -- I am posting my first description of Mars in my novel, written 3.5 years ago. It's been revised a bit since then, but I'm not sure where the original description got to, so I'll just give the latest version. Maybe Google Mars will change my view! Maybe Mars will become more beautiful, or sharp, as we go along! We'll see ...

This is from the first letter home written by Leonard Lord, a newcomer to the Martian gold-mining colony. If he sounds a bit poky and pedantic, it's because he's writing in 1899, and he's 40-something years old, so he actually learned to write in the 1870s:

But do not delude yourself any longer, Freddy, Mars is ugly. There is none of the strange beauty here that you've described in your Earth deserts. Perhaps I would have found your Earth deserts ugly, too, but it seems that beauty, the beauty you find in the world, Freddy, is dependent upon a contradiction between the familiar and the strange. The same blue sky, but larger. The same life, but differently shaped. There is none of that here, no blue sky, no greenery, no movement, no life. Here it is red, dusty, and dead. This much you knew already. But I can't convey to you in words, reports, or even descriptions how red, dusty and empty of life this place is. It is so red there is no yellow. It is so red it begrudges us blue. But such a red! It is rust-red, not a satisfying bloody scarlet, or any other shade of red one thinks of. One can't help but associate the color with decay. Picturesque decay perhaps. Even the sky is red - a pale, watered-down version of the red of the ground. Pink like a cooked salmon - no, paler, the background color is a dirty white, like clouds on an overcast day. All the colors on this planet are the colors of dirt and decay back on Earth. This is how I see it. This is how all the adults see it, although some seem to be getting used to it. The children born here - I wonder - will they learn to see freshness in a dirty white sky?

And there are dust storms frequently during this season I am told, without rhyme, reason or warning. There was one yesterday, to complement my mood. A red-out for fifteen hours around New Georgia town. The transports were brought in, and all outside activity ceased. The storm was like a rust-red cap around the New Georgia bubbles. Although the impression of the planet is already red - the very dust motes in the still air tinting everything with brick and rust color - still, the dust storm brought an intensity of red that I hadn't thought possible, as if the dust itself were a source of light and its furious stream through the air the holding up of a red lantern emitting decay and deadening. The already deathly-looking skin of the settlers turned to putty in the storm. I had never before realized how much we depend upon the sight and movement of blood under our translucent skin for the appearance of life. In this redness we look like so much plastic material, animated by stubbornness and not divinity. My second day here. Welcome to Mars!

And the lack of life - after years of reading, hearing and imagining your descriptions of the Southwestern American deserts, I had learned to expect from these dry, dusty rednesses a hawk or lizard or scorpion, or sudden extrusion of bush. Some occasional burnt green. A movement, animated corners, anything. But there is nothing. They say even the Sahara Desert contains life but here - nothing. Not a plant, not a creature - nothing. Were I to plunge into the outside and survive the cold and the boiling blood and the quick suffocation, I could find myself in a place void of disease, mosquito bites, malaria, cholera, tiger attacks, flies, snakebite, spiderwebs. Even death is missing. Never more than an indifferent naturalist, I would not have imagined that I would notice the absence of fossils, much less miss them. But every rock is smooth with the absence of life. I still have that rock you brought me from the center of the Painted Desert that proved that it was once a living seabed. I am tempted to drop it to the ground here, to see if I can sow this volcanic valley with the death of life and therefore bereave it of the death of no-life.

March 14, 2006

Google Mars!!!

Oh My Fucking God! Google Mars!

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Shriiiiiiiiiiiiieeeeeeeeeeeeeeek!

*GASP*

Okay, why am I so excited? Because my novel takes place on Mars, of course!

re: novel ... It's still in-progress. I've completed the first draft, and am currently agog at all the research I still have to do and wondering how I can get out of it. Plus, I just took a two+ month break and am now reading the damn thing through from start to finish. Fun, but also boring, since there are parts that I've read through several times already.

I wish Google Mars had been around three and a half years ago, when I was really writing my Mars descriptions. It woulda saved me some stress, and my parents some money (they gave me a Mars globe for Christmas a few years ago.) See, it's really hard to visualize Mars for yourself, from scratch, so to speak, because the images we have of Mars, although of high quality, are either satellite images, like these, or they're ground-level images from the rovers, like this. That is to say, they're either bird's eye views (actually, cartographer's eye views), or dog's eye views.

There are no man's eye views, that is to say, there aren't the kinds of views that people would get if they were on Mars; because people wouldn't be content to roll around inside a crater, or orbit the planet ad dusty nauseum. People would land as soon as poss, and get themselves up to a high place -- a mountain, a crater rim, a mesa, and do the broad-view-before-me thing. People would bring along a twin engine and buzz the canyons and circle the peaks. People wouldn't walk across flat deserts; and if they did, they'd look up every so often. People would go play on the dunes, and hike across the polar ice, probably finding some way to slide across it.

Three years ago I had to buy and download what maps and photos were available at Discovery stores and on the NASA Mars website, which, don't get me wrong, has always been cool, if only because it's basically the only game in town. Then the rovers landed and the NASA site got very, very cool, and all these geeks were hired, and even the ones who weren't hired started getting excited and doing animations and all kinds of cool stuff. But NASA, as experienced as it was at PR, was piling up so much data so quickly that they had to have some problems getting it across in a streamlined way.

I mean, go check out the site. Can you easily find, for example, a recent panorama view from a crater? Can you find an interactive map of the area each rover has covered? Can you, without blockages or frustration, get a smooth view of Mars? I can't. It took me two hours one day to find the animation I wanted. Of course, I could be just stoopid. (Don't hate me, NASA! I love your Mars site! I'm just sayin'!)

So here's Google Mars, with its simple, simple interactive map, and its easy, easy way of accessing information about features on the map. One click, two clicks, and you can find out more than you wanted to know about any feature, plus see photos, plus see animations if there are any.

I mean, check this out. Talk about buzzing canyons in a twin engine!

Ima go play now.

March 08, 2006

Midnight Magic

Last night Justine Larbalestier and Scott Westerfeld, husband-and-wifeness, did a little reading/signing at Borderlands. Poor Justine was sick as a dog (and once again, I ask you, what is sick about dogs? Woof!) but managed to say quite a lot, if not with her usual effervescence. And Scott, doing her reading for her, managed a few lines of Australian accent (oh yes), which offended no one. Then a (small) bunch o' us went to Ti Couz afterwards for crepes and, in my case, a really good seafood salad and chardonnay (yes) and white bread (double yes).

They were on world tour specifically promoting their latest books, Justine's second in her Magic or Madness trilogy, Magic Lessons, and Scott's third (and final?) in his Midnighters trilogy Blue Noon. (In Scott's case, though, since he has several series going at once, "latest book" is a matter of which month you're talking about.) I was thrilled to finally get my hands on Magic Lessons, which I've been waiting for ever since I picked up Magic or Madness at Wiscon last year, and read the whole thing in my hotel room right then and there.

MorM, though Justine's first novel, suffered from no lack of confidence or authority in voice. I was particularly impressed to see how much coldness Justine allowed into the telling. The lollipop-voiced warmth -- the one that quickly creates a comfortable world of easily-accessed rules -- which narrates most YA fantasy novels, is missing here. I understand the need for lollipop-voice and accessible world-building, especially in YA. The readers want to feel part of the world, like they understand it and belong to it (this applies to adults and children alike.) A writer who creates this sort of welcoming, cocooning world builds in a permanent audience for herself.

Real danger, real coldness outside, real darkness and confusion and despair and bewilderment risks alienating a readership that already experiences too much of these, and is turning to books for escape and comfort. And yet real human complexity -- even within the highly structured and artificial confines of YA fantasy -- is impossible without a visceral sense of jeopardy.

The first book, Magic or Madness, tells the story of Reason, a young witch who inherits magic from both grandfather and grandmother. (The beginning of book two hints that her father may have contributed something, too, but I'm not yet far enough into it to know.) Her young single mother, Serafina, has raised her to fear her grandmother, yet Serafina herself is descending into madness. Over the course of the book, Reason discovers that the possessor of magic must either use it and die young when the magic runs out, or not use it and go mad. A nice, cold, hard choice. Plus, there's a really evil bad guy who's genuinely scary and not a little seductive. (Actually, he's very much like a pimp, and we all know it's hard out here for a pimp.) Busy as I am (not!) I'm going to have to schedule in a ML date so I can get into it properly. None of this eking out little chapters each night for me!

Scott's trilogy Midnighters comes to a close with Blue Noon. The first Midnighters book, The Secret Hour, did actually have a great deal of the warmth and cocooning of a typical YA fantasy. (Let me just state here for the record that I'm as susceptible to this as anyone.) It's the story of five high schoolers in a small town in Oklahoma who, by virtue of being born at exactly midnight, have the ability to enter the secret 25th hour of the day, when the rest of the world is frozen and scary monsters come out. It's a trick handling five points of view (or really, four, one of the teens doesn't really get his own pov), not to mention coordinating five different talents (each of the teens has his/her own "talent" in the secret hour, which they have to learn how to use collaboratively.)

As I said, book one invites you into a private world where the ground rules are fairly straightforward (for a fantasy), and where you get to identify with each protagonist in turn and feel part of the ... well, clique. The cocoon effect is (probably) necessary for something that has the potential to become this complicated. At the transition between first and second book, however, is where YA writers frequently fail. Having created a warm, welcoming world, and having already once defeated their designated evil in the first book, it's difficult to break open that world again and up the scale of evil. Once the evil has been defeated, or at least, postponed, it's hard to recreate the urgency, the sense of jeopardy. Too often, the enemy becomes slightly laughable.

This is where Scott really shows his mettle as a writer. In Midnighters two, Touching Darkness, Scott doesn't really try to make the monsters bigger and badder. Instead, he turns the jeopardy inward, inserting a dangerous ally as well as an intermediate human enemy, that renders the black and white morality of the first book much more ambiguous. Book two ends *MILD SPOILER* with one protagonist betraying another in an utterly ethically compromised situation, and yet another protagonist joining the dark side.

Book three, Blue Noon, which I just finished a couple of days ago, therefore doesn't need to up the ante again. Although *MILD SPOILER* the dark side protagonist has been rescued and rejoins the clique, he brings some of the beast with him. It's sexy, which is a sudden change for these books, which were romantic and intense, but not hot before this. It's also central to the plot. On the jeopardy front, Scott manages to up the ethical compromise even more, by introducing the intermediate human enemy's perspective (which is, let's face it, the purpose of an IHE.) Worse, the IHE has a point. The book ends with *MILD SPOILER* a major sacrifice (again, GOOD, because who wants the trilogy resolution to be easy?) and a sort of trailing off in the direction of the tv series that Scott's blog hints will be made of the books.

All in all, with these two, award-winning (yes!) writers, you're getting more than just good solid YA. You're getting people who really understand the form and can layer it, make the form effective. YA, if you're like me, is the apotheosis of reading, if not of writing. My reading addiction/obsession really started around second grade when I got into my first YA and found out that not only could I get great stories that way, but I could also get a lot of information about the world with major spoonsful of sugar. (check out Scott's novels Peeps and So Yesterday for examples of such.) Hie ye to a bookstore and get your read on!

(Plus, check out their blogs -- links up top with their names -- for info on where they'll be on their tour, which they are on now. Touring. World tour. Yes.)

February 27, 2006

Octavia Butler

Octavia Butler died on Saturday.

As a reader, you get many, many authors who dazzle and challenge you, who turn you on, who piss you off, or make you think, or reveal to you what a book can be. But if you're a writer, you only get one author who turns you out. It's not mystical; it's a function of timing. At that moment when your metaphorical pen is poised, and the world is about to come into focus for you and begin emitting stories, there will be one author who shows up, smiles at you, and opens the gates.

My friend Russell turned me on to Octavia Butler in early 2001. I had been working in the Asian American arts community for a couple of years and I guess he thought it would behoove me to get another view of what an "ethnic" literature could be. I bought "Parable of the Sower". Two days later I went to the bookstore and bought every other book of hers I could find on the shelves. It took six months of searching local new and used bookstores, but I devoured her entire body of work (except her disowned novel "Survivor", of which there are now three used copies available on Amazon, for $50 - 85.)

Since I first read her, the surface upon which my knowledge and cultural understanding float has been disturbed. The books I read were debris floating across my consciousness: some, like icebergs, with more bottom. Octavia Butler dropped an anvil out of the sky and it did not float. See, everything I had read before her had been a trigger to that fugue state in which archetypes lived and had tea. Octavia didn't truck with fugue states. She reached a broad hand inside and dragged those fairy/robot/hybrid motherfuckers out into the cold light. They dropped straight down through my fears for the future, my bitter, narrow-browed suspicions about the present. They collected on the sea floor, a junkyard, an indication of where the weight is.

For six months, it was raining anvils. When I was done, I sat down and wrote my first science fiction story. It was melodramatic, overblown, clichéd, presumptuous, smug, silly, and pulpy. But it was good. It had one toe on the ground.

See, we can't write an ethnic, a hybrid, a violent, a displacement, a scary story directly. There are too many Thanksgiving tales, and immigrant stories, and freedom stories. There are too many food stories, and wise grandparents, and mafiosi. There's too much rising up, and falling into degradation. There are too many ruts of structure for us to fall into that channel us away from the story we started trying to tell. Too many well-worn channels that pervert our stories into something comforting, confirming, conservative. You cannot write the story you are writing. Octavia's time-travelers and aliens and demons and vampires are not symbols for us, or representatives. They are us, with the bullshit pared away. Her fabulism is the most direct speech.

I only really met her once (and she was kind and gentle and very, very smart, and she invited me and my friend into her house, and gave us books and a little of her company.) But she was my mentor, my model and my muse. She made writers real to me, she made writing real to me. She performed a duty for me that all apprentice writers have to have performed for them: the opener of floodgates. She was mine, I only get one, and she's gone.

It kills me that she lived such a lonely life -- such a solitary one -- in which the difference to other people between "lonely" and "solitary" is perhaps dignity and perhaps product, but the difference to yourself is essentially nil. It's nothing like pity or sympathy; it kills me because my novel I'm working on -- at once the most, and least worthwhile thing I've ever spent time on -- points ahead to a selfish, internal, solitary life, with no promise of any rewards beyond those of merely being able to write. There's no promise that I'll have any of her power, any of that iron weight to balance out the self-absorption and distance my life is shaping up to be. How did she do it? Was it all compromise? Was it worth it to her? And who will hold down the ground now?

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