82 posts categorized "da novel"

August 27, 2009

Reading Update: Mammothfail Is A World-building Issue

I just read: Thirteenth Child by Patricia Wrede and the fourth Buffy Season 8 Omnibus.

Naturally, I ordered this Thirteenth Child from BookSwim (netflix for books, not sure I recommend it yet) as soon as Mammothfail broke. I'm not sure I recommend BookSwim yet because it took that long for those books to reach me. So I'm reading this very late, with regard to the brouhaha, and in fact had forgotten that the book was coming at all.

First of all: yes, Wrede is a good writer. The book was a fun and fluent read, with a decent plot, interesting magical rules, and very alive characters. This last is very rare. I've noticed that readers will often credit a flat-charactered book with good characterization if the book itself is good. But a book doesn't have to be character-driven to be good. There are other drivers.

The book is also distinctly feminist in outlook, but also in a very rare way: feminist historical fiction tends to invest its characters with anachronistic attitudes and skills. Thirteenth Child didn't make this mistake. Its female characters, although strongwilled and powerful people, never complained about having to stay home and do the mending while the boys got to go out and play. They expressed frustration over it, but didn't combat it on a theoretical level that would have been inappropriate for the nineteenth century. I really appreciated that. It made the expression of female power so much more interesting.

The one part that is problematic is, of course, in the world-building. Yes, race in SF is a world-building issue. It has to do with how you see your world, not with how your world really is. There are very few places in the US that are actually all white. But there are also very few places in the US where middle class whites can't get away with failing to perceive the actual diversity all around them. We think there are huge all-white pockets of the US because writers portray fictional USes as all white so often, that they must be drawing on some sort of reality. But they're not. They're drawing on their perception of reality, as are all us chickens.

Let me break this down a bit for myself as well. There are three types of white-protag books by white authors in SF: the type that has important characters of color, the type that doesn't have important characters of color, and the type that has no characters of color at all.

The white-protag, white-authored book that has no characters of color in it: we don't need to talk about those, I hope. They are what they are, and I don't read them anymore. Some of them are extremely well written, most not so much. All take place in an alternative world in which white privilege has won, irrevocably. I think they have become immoral to write, as do a lot of other people, but as long as there is a market for them, they will sell. But let me just underline, before we leave this subject: these books have fictional worlds that are utterly unrealistic, in both the sense of fictional mimesis, and in the sense of human truth. US-written SF comes from a country where all-white simply doesn't obtain outside of certain clubs and gated communities. Period.

PoC, especially activists, will tolerate the type that doesn't have important characters of color -- like Harry Potter -- as long as there is a clearly genuine good faith effort to reflect some sort of real-life diversity in the book. There's a lot of discussion, and there can be a lot of disgust over the second-class-citizenship of characters of color in these worlds, but it's clear that the author hasn't completely ignored the actual racial diversity of the situation they are depicting. In fact, there's an honesty to this sort of writing: if you're white in America and middle class or higher, the chances that the main characters in your life are white are enormous. So reflecting diversity in your fictional world -- while your main characters are all white -- is at least honest about not just perception but your own personal reality. (Of course, it's fiction, so you're supposed to not reflect your own personal reality exactly, but I'm making a point here.)

The first type of book, in which some of the more important characters are of color, makes the situation more complex, because -- while these are the books that really start to deconstruct the white-only paradigm of American fiction -- there's the danger of the Magical Negro, and the dark-skinned sidekick, both stereotypes. There's also the danger, when a CoC is focused on so intently, that the CoC will be either whitewashed, or overethnicized. And finally, there's the danger of tokenizing. Because so much authorly energy is spent on a main CoC, there seems to be no color left for the rest of the humanity, and so you have an M&M adrift in a sea of marshmallows.

To reiterate:  while the diverse-world, white-main-characters book has a world-building honesty to it, it still keeps CoCs in second-class citizen mode. Whereas the oC-main-characters book may utterly fail in world-building. That's what's so puzzling.

What's weird about Thirteenth Child is that this book is two of these types: there are two important characters of color, both black; there are no other characters of color in the book at all; and the whole takes place on a continent that has no indigenous characters of color. If you look hard enough, it looks like a Harold and the Purple Crayon-scape: deft and lively figures and scenes, but drawn on a completely blank background. What has been making everyone so crazy about this book is that it is an attempt to write a "morally correct" fiction with important characters of color, but it is placed over a fictional world that has been deliberately and completely whitewashed.

Let's deal with the first one first: the book has major characters of color. These are a female magic teacher and a male itinerant magician and mentor. Both are black, both practice some fusion of "Avropean" (European) and "Aphrikan" magic, and both mentor the white, female, teenaged protagonist in developing her own magic, which maps better to Aphrikan than Avropean styles. Neither encounters any racism in this world ... one in which slavery was abolished three decades earlier, certainly, but one in which there was black slavery.

While both characters presumably have their own goals in life, we don't know what these might be; they are never hinted at. One character has a background, a family, and a place to go when she leaves the school she's teaching our protag at ... but the fact that she'll be leaving that school shortly after our protag graduates sort of underlines the idea that this teacher is there specfically to help her. The characters serve three purposes in this particular story: to teach the white protag a form of magic that whites couldn't teach her, to diversify the population of the story both by being black and by embodying the cultural diversity of magic, and to give the main characters moral stature by being their friends. (Yes, in a world where trolls cite their one black friend to justify racism, social proximity to one black person does serve to heighten your moral standing.)

So yes, these two characters are the very definition of Magical Negroes. Thus ends the analyze-the-two-characters-of-color portion of this review.

When you look away from these two characters, the rest of this world is entirely white. I've mentioned above that that's a danger of white-authored narratives with important CoCs. But it's much deeper than that in Thirteenth Child. Even white-washed frontier narratives like the Laura Ingalls Wilder books had Indians in the background, or at the very least, the threat of Indians. Their presence in the land was minimized, but it was one of the essential givens of this world, one of the essential elements that shaped frontier life and limited migration. Yes, their presence. Because, unlike with African Americans, whose presence in the US wasn't the issue -- it was rather where they got to go, what they got to do, and who got to decide what these were -- the whole issue with Native Americans was their presence. Remember that little word "genocide"? Yeah, that's a presence issue. It's not about where you get to be, it's about if you get to be.

So, there's a little something extra going on here than merely a white middle class author reflecting her privilege of being able to ignore the PoC all around her since her particular neighborhood is mostly white, as are all her friends. No, this is extra-blanking. Even old SF took us to other worlds to give us our white-only. This is an alternate, white-washed US, a re-do, a retcon. Aside from all the moral issues, it's impossible to get with on an imagination basis. Throughout the reading, especially once they left the safe settlement and went out into the wild, my mind couldn't stick the idea that there were simply no Indians out there. It's the Old West! There are Indians! Bad Indians or good Indians depends on whether it's Terence Malick or John Ford making that film. But there are Indians. My mind kept sliding away from the empty-of-humans landscape and putting Indians over the next ridge. Seriously, it's impossible. The only way I could make it work was by blanking out the landscape and blotting out human AND animal threat, both. This was easy since there weren't many descriptions in the book. And it resulted in the Harold-and-the-Purple-Crayoning of the story.

One more thing I want to mention about this and then I'm done: I have to wonder what Wrede was imagining the landscape as when she wrote this. Did she have trouble seeing the Indian-free landscape? Presumably not, but she doesn't fill in what she sees very much or very well. (Usually I appreciate low-density-of-description narratives but there are times when these don't serve their purpose.) This makes me wonder further ... in whitewashed mainstream narratives there usually isn't a lot of description of landscapes and cityscapes in which PoC don't take place either. I imagine this is because white writers, writing for predominantly white readers, only have to sketch in the consensus perception of an all-white reality with a few gestures. So the barely gestured, non-Indianed US frontier of Thirteenth Child: did Wrede subconsciously assume that the rest of her predominantly white audience could see an unpopulated American West just as easily as she could?

And my last question about that is: could they?

July 13, 2009

Updatingss

Finished Epileptic by David B. The first half was wonderful. The second half kinda fell apart. But that was because it was a memoir, and when kids get into their teens, the world gets immensely larger and it's harder to make a clear narrative out of it.

Still haven't started on Phase Two of Draft Two. Too much other stuff to do.

July 06, 2009

Iz Finish

Phase One of Draft Three Iz Finish.

That was the easy part: editing a printout of the MS, and noting the places where I need to rewrite. Now comes Phase Two, otherwise known as THE HARD PART, i.e. actually rewriting.

Onward!

July 05, 2009

Updatingss

Okay, so I've finished Pratchett and Gaiman's Good Omens, which is an extremely mediocre book. Waaaay overrated. Both Pratchett and Gaiman are much better on their own. Also finished Carrie Ryan's The Forest of Hands and Teeth, which is the melancholy, literary, zombie YA nov. It's good, only ... somehow Ryan manages to flub the writing of the key moments and scenes. Like, where a scene turns, somehow the transitions tend to falter, so I don't know the scene has turned and have to go back a couple of paragraphs to figure out what the new situation is again. Argh.

Also, been stuck for a week about a dozen pages from the end of da nobble. Next time I get to it I'll finish it, and then Phase One of Draft Two will be done. I also might have found a novel writing group. Yay! More good news forthcoming in upcoming weeks.

June 30, 2009

ID This Book!

Hey guys,

My sister was given a book as a young teen by a friend, which I read, and I just now remembered. Can anyone tell me the title/author?

It involved a beautiful, dark-haired princess or chieftain's daughter, who was a spoiled brat and had an affair with some dude and got pregnant. He bailed and she shamed her family with her bastard son. The son had red hair, which was a sign of magic, and punishable by death. I can't remember what happened next, but they both ended up as slaves under the protection of some other chieftain and she had to dye the son's hair dark to hide his magic. She ended up becoming the chief's concubine. Meanwhile, there's another slave there (male, of course) who also has magic and he starts teaching the boy.

Don't remember most of the plot, but at some point it comes out that she herself is the one who passed magic on to her son (not the dude who bailed on her) and, if she would only learn it, she could become a powerful magician herself. Or something.

Any clues?

Did a little work on da nobble over the weekend and got through quite a bit today. I only have the last two or three chapters to go now, and these'll go fast. I've noticed, actually, that the beginning third and the end third don't need a lot of work (just minor edits), but the middle third is a mess and I'm going to have to go back in after this pass and rewrite a whole bunch of stuff. Argh. But good. I'm progressing.

June 27, 2009

Reading Update and Check In

Argh! My writing time yesterday was hijacked by a FIVE HOUR MEETING that wasn't supposed to start for another two hours when I arrived at the cafe. ARgh.

I did finish reading Timmi's Alanya to Alanya two nights ago, and am anxiously awaiting the arrival of the next installment. Awesome (that is a comment, not a review. No-review rule holds.)

June 25, 2009

Cell Phone Assholes

I did not work on da nobble today. I was in my favorite cafe during my writing time, and there was one too many assholes talking on their cellphones. Yes, inside. Yes, in a room in a cafe where people mostly sit and work, not talk. I can manage to ask people to take it outside at most once a day. Today the third cell phone user drove me outta the cafe. When I got home there was netflix. Argh.

However, I did go to netflix and put myself on vacay for two months, to see if I can do without. If I can, I might just cancel it altogether. It should at least get me reading more.

June 24, 2009

Check In

Didn't work on the MS yesterday, but it's okay, because I spent my writing time thinking about what I posted about in my previous post, and that was a really, really important realization for me. I've been able to get granular about what setup I need to have to get writing again.

Really got rolling on the MS today and worked through probably about 60 pages (I didn't count) including the most sticky chapter of all, the one I know is completely wrong and out of character, but which needs to happen in some way for themes to get played out and for the character to get moving across the geography again. I figured out, in general, how I'm going to rewrite this, and it's good. It'll kill about three birds with one stone. I been killin' lotsa birds today.

I'm starting to get excited about finishing the editing phase and getting back into rewriting. Hope it's soon.

Good writing day. And now a friend is coming over with wine and we're going to have the awesome dark rye/fig/olive/nut crackers I got at Whole Paycheck and it'll be a good evening as well.

June 22, 2009

Write-A-Thong

I'm not participating in the Clarion West Write-a-thon because I do other fundraising among my friends and family throughout the year and need to choose where I spend that energy.

But I think it's a great idea, both as a fundraiser, and as a writing initiative. So I made a private commitment to write every day during Clarion West-time. Today was my first day. Officially it started yesterday, but Clarion West officially starts the night before classtime starts when the first instructor is introduced, and NOT when your writing needs to start. So I took advantage.

Anyhoo, I'm going through a printed out MS of da nobble right now, editing. And by "editing," I mean both line-editing and hefty, more structural stuff. When I'm done with this phase, I'm taking the heavily marked up MS back to Scrivener and doing the rewrites there. After this rewrite, I think I'll actually be ready to show it to some first readers.

I'm hoping this phase will be done by the end of the Write-A-Thong. But I'm not holding my breath. Will make an effort to post daily about my progress but, again, no breath-holding.

June 20, 2009

Up(Yours!)Dike's Rules for Book Reviewing (And Why They Suck!)

John Updike's Golden Rules for Book Reviewing, via (you'll have to catch this link quickly, since it forwards after a few seconds):

  1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.
  2. Give him enough direct quotation--at least one extended passage--of the book's prose so the review's reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.
  3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.
  4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending. (How astounded and indignant was I, when innocent, to find reviewers blabbing, and with the sublime inaccuracy of drunken lords reporting on a peasants' revolt, all the turns of my suspenseful and surpriseful narrative! Most ironically, the only readers who approach a book as the author intends, unpolluted by pre-knowledge of the plot, are the detested reviewers themselves. And then, years later, the blessed fool who picks the volume at random from a library shelf.)
  5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author's ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it's his and not yours?
  6. To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an idealogical battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author "in his place," making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end."

Okay, let's just be clear here: these are "golden rules" insofar as they are John Updike wishing reviewers would do unto him as he would have them do unto him. I know he wrote reviews himself, but he was primarily a fiction writer and had no benefit coming to him for developing a reputation as a strong and honest reviewer. Rather, the opposite: he had a stake in not pissing anyone in the industry off and in building goodwill among writers, publishers, and other folks with cookies.

I'm a writer as well, though a barely published one (no book yet, so no nasty reviews yet, so grain-o-salt it.) I also write reviews for my blogs and for more ... er ... legitimate venues. And I, openly, thoughtfully, and advisedly don't follow Updike's rules (with a few exceptions), even though I know it could hurt me as a writer in the long run. Here's why, point for point:

  1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

    Really? So if we've seen -- in the past decade -- twenty, or fifty, or two hundred debut novels by white, male writers in their late twenties about rediscovering their and their family's place in the universe by backpacking around ________ (fill in foreign locale here), we don't get to blame the 201st writer for not attempting anything different? That's bullshit. Book reviews are part of a larger conversation analyzing our culture by examining artistic and artificial products of that culture. The writer's choice of subject is absolutely fair game. If we're bored by a book not because it's horribly written but because it's the five-thousandth iteration of that particular subject -- stale, clichéd, and unoriginal -- the reader needs to know ... and we need to say so.

    Or to get more granular: if a writer chooses something hot-button and difficult as a subject and displays her huge blind spot in doing so, do we not get to point that out? Say she's writing about prejudice against the disabled in a city like, say, Oakland (to get really blatant) but there are no characters of color anywhere in her narrative. In Oakland. It's bullshit to say "she didn't want to address race so she left the POC out." You can't address anything in a mimetic scenario that in real life would include X, if you don't include X. And reviewers get to call writers on this.

    Maybe I'm laying too much weight on reviewing, but I consider it part of cultural criticism, which I consider to be something of a sacred trust (or a profane trust?) I consider cultural production itself a sacred trust: people talking to other people about what they think is important; telling stories about what it is in our society we should be paying attention to. If they leave stuff out, ignore stuff, or choose not to address stuff, they get to be called out for it
    , one hundred percent, you betcha.

  2. Give him enough direct quotation--at least one extended passage--of the book's prose so the review's reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.

    Ar to the Gh. Seriously? This explains a lot about Updike and about how MFA lit fic is written. It's written so that it can be quoted, sentence by sentence or paragraph by paragraph, in reviews! Think about it, folks. What's the point of writing (or reading) a 80,000-word work of prose if you can get an adequate "taste" of it in 50 words? Doesn't that basically tell you that the 80,000 words are written in (bo-ring) equal, like increments of 50-100 words? Why would anyone wanna read that?

    A book is long-form prose. It should not be quotable, that is: it should not be tastable via quotation. It should be so integral and complete a piece that you have to read the whole fucking thing to get a real "impression" of it. This is not to say that enjoyment -- "mouth feel" -- of the language is unimportant. It is, however, to say that insisting that a quotation be included will disadvantage books that were written as wholes, and not as excessively long and plodding and plotless prose-poems by people whose prose poetry would never be accepted as such by the poetry industrial complex. And, in my not-humble opinion, all books (excepting collections) should be written primarily as wholes, with the lovely language taking second priority to the integrity of the piece. (Unless, of course, the writer specifically chooses a project that deconstructs novel or book structure and focuses in on the moment of language, in which case the writer should be prepared to be called out for it.)

  3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.

    Again, this means that you can only describe the language of the book, and not character, structure, plot point, theme, setting, action, thought, or that indescribable something that animates (or fails to animate) the whole and makes it a living piece of art. The only things that are quotable in a review are small increments of language. You can't quote a plot, or confirm a plot by quotation. You can't quote a character, or confirm a book-length characterization by quoting a phrase. And, let's be clear: a characterization that can be confirmed by quoting a phrase? My people call it "stereotype."

    And "fuzzy precis?" Eat me, Updike. The typical review is 500 - 1000 words. You can't give anything but a general summary of a novel or book in that space. You just can't. The succinct precis is the reviewer's most basic tool, you tool. In fact, I would even say that the "art" of the review is being able to convey a sense of the book without having to hack up the book into pieces to do so. Casting contempt upon this "art" by referring to it as a "fuzzy precis" doesn't do anything. Reviewers won't, and can't, stop using it, and whole books will become no more quotable thereby. Asshole.

  4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending. (How astounded and indignant was I, when innocent, to find reviewers blabbing, and with the sublime inaccuracy of drunken lords reporting on a peasants' revolt, all the turns of my suspenseful and surpriseful narrative! Most ironically, the only readers who approach a book as the author intends, unpolluted by pre-knowledge of the plot, are the detested reviewers themselves. And then, years later, the blessed fool who picks the volume at random from a library shelf.)

    I mostly agree with this, but want to point out that Updike gives only the example of his own books being spoilered, and not having his experience of reading another's book spoiled thereby. That's pretty revealing.

  5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author's ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it's his and not yours?

    No and no! Comparisons are odious! This is the one, specific place where what Updike said above -- about not calling out a writer for failing to do what he didn't attempt -- applies. My rule number one: DO NOT COMPARE INDIVIDUAL WRITERS AND DO NOT CALL OUT A WRITER FOR FAILING TO ACHIEVE WHAT ANOTHER WRITER ACHIEVED. This is the best way to encourage people to imitate one another: by implying that there is a correct way to do something and an incorrect way to do something. Saying "this writer's way of addressing the subject is correct, yours is incorrect" only sets up an orthodoxy. Writers should rather be critiqued purely on the successes and failures of their own projects, and not on how their projects compare to those of others. If someone tries something and fails, yes, say so. But with an eye towards how THAT SPECIFIC ATTEMPT could have been more successful, rather than with an eye toward how that specific attempt is wrong, but hey, look at this one!

    The only thing I agree with is this: "
    Try to understand the failure. Sure it's his and not yours?" That goes double for me.

  6. To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an idealogical battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author "in his place," making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end."

    Yeah, yeah, fine. I can't really disagree with any of this. But I have to say, if a book fails to relay the "joys in reading," that needs to be said. Readers must become more discriminating through reading reviews. Readers must learn over time what makes a book ordinary, and what makes it challenging or interesting. They must be given a vocabulary they can use to talk about books. They must understand that some joys of reading, the ones they are always seeking, are not the only joys. They must learn that simply because a small joy may be discerned in a book, it doesn't mean that the book is worth reading. And they must ultimately learn that every mediocre book that is published, reviewed, bought, and read, means very specifically that another, much better book will not be published, much less read. Readers must learn how to improve the publishing economy for good writing, and poison the publishing economy for bad writing.

June 12, 2009

First Book Trailer!

Wow! I'm super proud of this book trailer we produced for Kaya Press (Sam Arbizo did the work.) After having a look at the field, it seemed there was a lot of room for improvement. What do you all think?

(By the way, I'm still working on some longer posts. Just recovering from jet lag and getting back into the swing.)

April 01, 2009

Bad Book Reading Consequences


Awrsome.

Via.

March 22, 2009

BSG Finale. Yawn.

Talk about no bang and not much whimpering.

Apparently BSG is finale-ing, (today? tomorrow? I don't know) and I don't even care. I'm behind two episodes as it is, and I'm certainly not going to watch it at the time of broadcast. No spoilers, please, even though I don't care. I'm going out on a limb though: it's gonna suck.

In other news, I'm writing again. I had a good writing day today. If this keeps up, I won't be blogging much. But then, I've been so busy the past month, I haven't been blogging much, anyway. So let it be for a good reason I'm not blogging.

That is all.

February 19, 2009

Nobble Update

Things looking up!

I printed draft 2 out and am reading it through and put it down because I was so bored. Yes, BORED!

This is good news because Orwell said that:

Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with 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.

Which I feel to be true in my case to a certain extent (minus a little hyperbole.) I've been working on da nobble for 6.5 years now and I've felt actually possessed by a demon which is essentially the spirit of the nobble. The "horrible" part was the year I spent NOT working on it ... but still being possessed by it, and stung, and taunted, and told I was worthless by it because I wasn't paying it its due attention.

The possession feels like infatuation or love, and very easily turns into hatred, contempt, loathing. So my boredom with the (boring parts of the) MS is like a light at the end of the tunnel. My infatuation wanes! I see a way out! All I have to do is cut away the chaff and preen up the rest and I'll be free of this ... thing.

And free to be possessed by the next thing. Sigh.

January 23, 2009

Readin' Update

Nisi Shawl FILTER HOUSE

A book of short stories from a fabulous writer who is my friend so the no-review rule holds. Awrsome.

Ernest J. Eitel WHAT IS FENG SHUI?: THE CLASSIC NINETEETH-CENTURY INTERPRETATION

Just what the title says: an 1873 publication from an English-language press in Hong Kong. Eitel was a German Protestant missionary -- apparently with a gift for languages -- who spent his career in China and ended up becoming something of an expert in Feng Shui, Buddhism, and Cantonese, writing texts on the first two and a dictionary of the last. He has his own form of Romanization for Cantonese, apparently.

Anywho, the book is extremely valuable not just for helping me to cut through all the latter day, Westernized, interior decorating crap that fills most feng shui books I can find, but it also teaches 19th Century feng shui and conveys the attitude of an educated and enlightened Western man towards feng shui.

Eitel is alternately contemptuous of and fascinated by feng shui, condemning it as "rank superstition" at the same time that he claims it as legitimate Chinese natural science. He makes the point that I've had to make before, that although the art/science of feng shui is infused with hoo doo and superstition, and doesn't follow the strict rules of western empiricism, there has been a science to the manner of study of feng shui; there is a form of empiricism and experimentation involved -- only it isn't "pure."

Perfect research item for da nobble.

January 05, 2009

What I Read in 2008

Take two, i.e. I wrote this entire post a couple of days ago, and then lost it because Typepad is stooopid. Also, I'm pretty sure I'm missing a couple from the list below because I didn't post about them or didn't tag them "whatcha readin'?" Sigh. Whatever.

I've bolded the books that really did something for me: made me think, changed or created an idea. You'll notice that I didn't include A Passage to India or Huckleberry Finn among these. Those were rereads, so they actually stank up my universe this year. Maybe if I read 'em again in a few years, they'll be good again.

  1. Christopher Barzak's One For Sorrow
  2. The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
  3. Passing by Nella Larsen
  4. High Wizardry Diane Duane
  5.  A Wizard Abroad Diane Duane
  6. The Wizard's Dilemma Diane Duane
  7. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
  8. The Coyote Kings of the Space Age Bachelor Pad by Minister Faust
  9. At A Crossroads: Between a Rock and My Parents' Place by Kate T. Williamson
  10. Good As Lily by Derek Kirk Kim and Jesse Hamm
  11. The Death and Life of Great American Cities Jane Jacobs
  12. Terrier: The Legend of Beka Cooper #1 Tamora Pierce
  13. The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot
  14. First Test Tamora Pierce
  15. Page Tamora Pierce
  16. Squire Tamora Pierce
  17. Lady Knight Tamora Pierce
  18. Victory of Eagles Naomi Novik
  19. His Majesty's Dragon Naomi Novik
  20. Throne of Jade Naomi Novik
  21. Black Powder War Naomi Novik
  22. Empire of Ivory Naomi Novik
  23. A Wizard Alone Diane Duane
  24. Wizard's Holiday Diane Duane
  25. Flora's Dare Ysabeau Wilce
  26. Sherman Alexie The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
  27. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
  28. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
  29. The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud
  30. The Golem's Eye by Jonathan Stroud
  31. Ptolemy's Gate by Jonathan Stroud
  32. In Cold Blood Truman Capote
  33. Nora Pierce The Insufficiency of Maps
  34. Four Letter Words by Truong Tran
  35. Lauren McLaughlin's debut Cycler
  36. E. Lockhart's The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks
  37. Somerset Maugham's The Painted Veil
  38. Barbara Neely's Blanche on the Lam
  39. E.M. Forster's A Passage to India
  40. Justine Larbalestier's How To Ditch Your Fairy.
  41. Barack Obama Dreams from My Father
  42. Green Grass, Running Water Thomas King
  43. Terry Pratchett Monstrous Regiment
  44. Terry Pratchett Making Money
  45. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain
  46. Love and Other Monsters by Vandana Singh
  47. Buffy Season 8 comic book (three omnibus volumes)
  48. The Last Man first omnibus
  49. Nation Terry Pratchett
  50. Outliers Malcolm Gladwell
  51. Octavian Nothing Vol. II MT Anderson
  • 51 books completed in total, just about a book a week, like last year.

  • 5 nonfiction books

  • 1 graphic novel and 2 comic book series

  • 21 YA or middle grade novels, or novels packaged as such

  • 31 books in speculative fiction genres

  • 21 male and 17 female authors (however, I read several books each from certain female authors)

  • 12 authors of color, as far as I know

  • 11 re-reads

  •  9 series that the books I read were part or all of, not including the comics

  •  19 books with strong female protagonists (down from 27 last year! That must be because I read less YA!)

One thing that's noticeable here is that I did a lot of escapist reading. I didn't intend to reread so much, nor read so much YA. Not that YA is automatically escapist, but I read deliberately escapist YA. This had to do with my being depressed for large chunks of the year (Jan - Feb and June - Nov). Escapist reading has always been a primary coping mechanism, but this year I also watched a lot of TV. Not as much as last year, mind you, because TV sucked so bad this year, but a lot.

Another thing was the lower count of strong female protagonists in this year's narrative. That was a little shocking. First of all, a number of my favorite women writers had male protags, such as Naomi Novik, Susanna Clarke, and Vandana Singh. Nothing wrong with that. But there were also a couple of books with female protags who were weak: Kate T. Williamson's memoir and Nora Pierce's novel. Of course, the memoir was about two years when Williamson was stuck living with her parents (and yes, the book was just. that. boring.), and Pierce's protag was the small, dependent child of a mentally ill single mother. But that raises the question of why literary narrative is so interested in women and girls at their weak moments and why we have to turn to genre fiction to get stories of powerful women and girls.

I'm certain that part of it has to do with the fact that the gatekeepers of lit fic are primarily male, and get to decide what is and isn't appropriate or "good." And I'm sure that part of it has to do with the fact that genre is engaged in a lot of escapism and therefore wish-fulfillment--of whatever sort--is on the menu. Wow, that's depressing. Any arguments there?

So, I'm thinking I'll probably be reading less from series in 2009 ;) and branching out a little more into other genres. There will be even more nonfiction since soon I'll be going into final research mode for da nobble, and because I want to do more reading for atlas(t). Other than that, I am, as always, open to suggestions (although I'm so distractable that I'll probably forget your suggestion as soon as I read it.) What did you read last year that blew your mind?

November 02, 2008

NaNoFiMo Update

Well, NaNoFiMo (National Novel Finishing Month) isn't going too smoothly so far. Yesterday I was busy and didn't do anything. Today I tried for two hours to manage a tiny detail: I needed to put in what Christian sect one of my main characters grew up in (he's no longer religious, so it's important, but minor.) I needed a non-communitarian, abolitionist but not pacifist sect. I spent two hours looking online for such a sect before I realized that this was a detail that I could let go. Do we really need to know exactly what sect he belonged to? It won't be referred to again. Seriously.

Then I looked for other small things to handle and decided that we didn't need to know how they mark trails to clear after dust storms (who cares?) or need 100% to hear that mention of a transport line to Alba Patera (I don't even remember what that refers to, but I'm sure it's unimportant.)

Then I figured out that a small detail I need to seed in there so it will bear fruit later is actually already part of a larger fix. Then I moved two small fixes to the medium fix column because I don't know what I was thinking, they're going to take longer than that. And that's about three hours of work right there.

Welk, I guess this is the job. I guess a lot of revision is planning and then planning again, and then getting disgusted with your obsession with unwanted detail and revising your PLAN, all without actually touching your text. Arg. I have only eleven items in the short fix column now.

Tomorrow, a few short fixes in the airport, yes?

October 23, 2008

Mono Lake Materials

Just a quick check-in: I'm up at my cousin's (bless him!) house on Mono Lake for a week (I'm halfway through the week now.) I had visitors with me the past five nights: Patty until yesterday and Sam the past three days until today. The next three nights I'm on my own. That's good, in its way, but it does mean that I'm not going to be reading Turn of the Screw in this phase of the retreat ;).

Patty was working on some sketches for her new calendar project, and Sam did some work yesterday on residency applications. I do not envy her. I've been working on an essay for Timmi, which I have no idea if it is good or not. (I also have no idea if I structured that clause correctly.) I'm hoping to get that done today so I can get at least two good days of work in on da Nobble, but I'm not sure that'll happen. This essay is a monster and it's killin' me.

Anyway, last night, after Patty was gone, Sam and I brainstormed. We are both looking down the barrel of Kearny Street Workshop's 10-year APAture retrospective (called Shifted Focus), part of which will be a reading and a performance night at the de Young Museum in conjunction with their Asian American art exhibition (called Shifting Currents, see what they did there?). I'll be doing a reading on December 3 and Sam will be doing a performance on January 23.

Anyway, we agreed a few weeks ago to a) both present new work created specifically for this event, and b) collaborate on that work by c) coming up with a set of "materials" from which we would both create our pieces. By materials, I mean characters (and names), concepts (like "fossil"), locations, (like "rooftop"), activities (like "two fisted drinking"), words, phrases, etc. The idea is that we'll come up with a short set of things--one in each category, perhaps five or less--which we will both be constrained to use in the pieces we create. (The examples I used above are probably not the ones we're going to use, by the way.)

So we're still brainstorming, but we'll have the set ready by next week. I don't think I'll post them here. I think, instead, I'll encourage you all to come to the reading (maybe I'll post a video of it on YouTube) and the performance and see the results for yourselves. Itsth an ecthperiment!

October 06, 2008

What I've Read So Far in 2008

Just checking in on it. Still reading a lot of YA, but this time, entirely for pleasure. No silly I'm-writing-a-YA-novel excuses. This is actually 37 books, since the Bartimaeus trilogy is three, Protector of the Small is four, and the Temeraire cycle is five. So I'm almost on track with last year's one-book-per-week rate. On the other hand, a few of these are re-reads (Temeraire and Protector, and Passage to India) so maybe they don't count as much.

Anyway, I'm going to try to make the last 12-13 weeks of the year count. I'm working on re-reading Orwell's Burmese Days for the essay I'm writing and I'm reading the second Flora Segunda book, but then I'll come up with another short reading list. Some of the books from Hispanic Heritage Month or American Indian Heritage Month maybe.

Any suggestions? Things I should not leave the year without reading?

  1. Christopher Barzak's One For Sorrow
  2. The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
  3. Passing by Nella Larsen
  4. High Wizardry Diane Duane
  5.  A Wizard Abroad Diane Duane
  6. The Wizard's Dilemma Diane Duane
  7. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
  8. The Coyote Kings of the Space Age Bachelor Pad by Minister Faust
  9. At A Crossroads: Between a Rock and My Parents' Place by Kate T. Williamson
  10. Good As Lily by Derek Kirk Kim and Jesse Hamm
  11. The Death and Life of Great American Cities Jane Jacobs
  12. Terrier: The Legend of Beka Cooper #1 Tamora Pierce
  13. The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot
  14. Protector of the Small cycle Tamora Pierce
  15. Victory of Eagles Naomi Novik
  16. Entire Temeraire cycle (so far) Naomi Novik
  17. A Wizard Alone Diane Duane
  18. Wizard's Holiday Diane Duane
  19. Sherman Alexie The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
  20. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
  21. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
  22. Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud
  23. Four Letter Words by Truong Tran
  24. Lauren McLaughlin's debut Cycler
  25. E. Lockhart's The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks
  26. Somerset Maugham's The Painted Veil
  27. Barbara Neely's Blanche on the Lam
  28. E.M. Forster's A Passage to India
  29. Justine Larbalestier's How To Ditch Your Fairy.

October 01, 2008

Reading Update

Just finished re-reading E.M. Forster's A Passage to India. I read it the first time in college, when I was going through my Forster phase. I didn't think much of it at the time, but for completely different reasons than those making me not think much of it now. I'm reading it now as an example of decolonization-process novels for something I'm writing. So I'm looking at it critically that way, and don't have much to say about it now ... except: what a load of hooey!

Was Forster always that annoying? This is what bugs me about the stupid stupid lit critic expression "closely observed." No writer worth her salt puts things in her novels that aren't closely observed. Why praise a novelist for doing what their art form requires? It's what they DO with the observations that count. And Forster uses his, here, to bolster a half-baked, half-formed idea of the coldness of the universe and its intentions. Through all the bizarreness of his method, you can see many, many moments of close observation. They ring true, like the right kind of metal, in a way that his explanations of the natives don't. But it's all part of a net of insufficiency.

It made me kind of sad. This is a great novel--a piece of writing by a brilliant writer at the height of his powers--about an impoverished set of ideas that the writer evidently found grandiose. It also made me kind of ugh. I'm going to have to read Howard's End again, the book of his I found the most brilliant. Perhaps trying to understand "India" in the mid-twenties was beyond him, but maybe understanding England wasn't? Who knows? All I know is that if Howard's End fails the re-reading, Forster's getting demoted.

September 23, 2008

Readin' Update

I finished Barbara Neely's Blanche on the Lam, the first of the Blanche mysteries. Took me two weeks.

I read the second or third one many years ago when it first came out (my mom had it), Blanche Among the Talented Tenth, and was surprised that this story of a black domestic worker among richer, lighter-skinned members of "the race" would ring familiarity bells with me. It was the first book I ever read that described a (small) part of my own experience. Don't ask me now how that can be, I'll have to read the book again. Something about Blanche being one of them yet being repudiated.

Anyway, I always meant to go back and read the others and I was recently in Marcus Books on Fillmore and found this one on a table. It took me two weeks to read, even though it's only 200 pages, because Neely was so intent on exploring the contemporary master/servant relationship from the point of view of the servant. The murder doesn't actually happen until more than halfway through the book. The relationships in the book are complex, complicated by race and class and personality.

The book is terrific until the end, when the bad buy deteriorates into a caricature. But definitely worth reading.

September 08, 2008

Reading Update with SPOILERS!

Wow, I really get behind.

So I read the Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud and loves it. It's the only successful commentary on the Iraq war that I've seen so far in fiction (not that I've read that many attempts.) It should feel heavy handed, but doesn't, because the secondary world created here is so weighty and balanced and alive. It shares one thing with Harry Potter and that is the depth of the world-building. But it also shares this with the Temeraire series and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

My one real quibble (SPOILER!) is with the very end when John Mandrake sacrifices himself for the others. It sort of needs to happen, but it feels way too much like the proper punishment for the radically flawed character ... his only way to redeem himself. I don't like that and it brought the book down for me. I can't quite see how else it could have ended, but this was just a good ending--just a neat wrap-up ending--not a great ending. The quality of the book was such that a great ending could have raised the book (or, I should say, the series) to greatness. But just a good ending make the book/s just good. Not really a problem, though.

Then I read Lauren McLaughlin's debut Cycler and loves it. Dewd. I'm not allowed to review friends on this blog but I'm so relieved. What if your friend wrote a book and it sucked? What if your friend wrote a book and it didn't suck but all you had for it was faint praise? Dodged that bullet. Why are you still here? Go read the sucker already. I might even review it on my udder blog but you didn't hear that from me. Oh, and here's Liz Henry's review.

September 04, 2008

*Triumphant Screech!*

I have finished Draft Two of da nobble!

\o/

I did it by employing a little trick. I was in phase two of three phases of Draft Two. Phase one was a major revision of a problematic area of the book and fixing the outward ripples of this revision. Phase two was then going back and writing in all the peripheral material I had always wanted to include but didn't in the first draft (which was about creating a coherent novel, without necessarily the richness of a complete thing.)

Phase three was going to be going back in and fixing all the fixes I had noted throughout draft two.

BUT. Draft Two has now taken a year all told (although that year was spread out over two calendar years). And the list of fixes now comprises about ten pages in Word. This is not a Phase. It is its own draft. So the list of fixes is now Draft Three, which shall commence next week.

Woot!

Also, Draft Four will be me going back in and doing chiropractic work. (Structure and deep character fix.) Then there will be a spit and polish and we're done. I have until August 2009.

Deep breath.

ETA: oh, ... uh ... and actually, there's that little matter of cutting out 50 or 80 thousand words. The MS at this moment is 203,036 words. I shit you knot. I'm gonna hafta rethink the whole draft numbering system. Maybe I'm back to Phase three of Draft Two. Sigh.

September 03, 2008

Oh My oG

I'm so close to done with phase two of draft two I can TASTE IT.

August 27, 2008

Reading Update and Writing Lessons

So I've just completed two really good books. Not great books. Really good books. Both I should have read in 2004.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

I bought this when it was all the rage and expected a solid fantasy and didn't get it. At the time, it felt really really slow to me and I got bored about 100 pages in and put it down. Then recently I was reading a blog post that mentioned something interesting about it (have forgotten what) and decided to go back and see if I could get a little further into it.

What a difference! Since I knew what to expect this time the book motored along briskly. It wasn't fast, but it certainly wasn't slow. In fact, the pacing was perfect. I detected notes of Dickens, Thackeray, Tolstoi, and of course, Spenser. Not in the language or in the "themes" (whatever those are), but rather in the structure of portions of the story. That's the kind of literary allusion I can deal with.

Clarke uses a tactic that I'm using in da nobble, which is putting some essential information into the footnotes. And also, letting the spillover from her fertile imagination reside there. It's a fake-out: you think you don't have to read the footnotes but you actually do. But it's also a really effective way of including infodumps, and an even more effective way of including important world-building perspectives that don't fit within the flow of the narrative. If these were intruded, even as is, into the main text the reader would process it differently, but as footnotes, these pieces get reserved--and highlighted--as off-flow text.

The one problem with this is that she didn't set up a conceit that allowed for footnotes. There were a few places in the book where she compared Strange and Norrell's time with "today." But she never clarified what day "today" was or who was writing those thoughts from what perspective. And most of the book read as a novel, not as a history; there was no explanation for how a person could know what these "historical" figures thought or experienced when they were alone. I think this was a weakness, but a minor one.

The book's main weakness SPOILER was that, at the end, the Raven King appeared to be nearly omnipotent, like a neglectful god. This took all of the interest out of the character of the Raven King and also out of what role he was playing in the drama. He was much more interesting as a man with special powers, not as a daddy figure who realized his kids had gotten themselves into a mess and reached out a hand at the end to fix the mess. First of all: deus ex machina = boring. Secondly, the kids got themselves into the mess and it would only be interesting if they got themselves out of it.

The book was powerful because the Raven King remained vague, but popped out clearly in moments making it obvious that he was a man, albeit a very powerful one. The book's power also came from the choices the main characters made. To have the climax drive by one part accident and one part deus ex machina was a shift away from what the book had been saying about humans all along.

Writing lessons:

  • Leave what's vague, vague. Not everything has to be clarified, particularly not the mysteries the characters live by.
  • The mechanics of a character's movement through the events of the plot (i.e. if by choices, deliberate action, or accident) must stay consistent. If the mechanics change simply for the climax/resolution, that's cheating.
  • The climax/resolution must be compressed, sped up, slightly, or else intensified in some way. You can't be in the middle of the climax and not know that this is the climax or, well, you know. Bummer.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

It's almost pointless to compare this to Catherine Valente's Orphan's Tales. They have only one thing in common and that's the nested stories tactic. But done so completely differently. My complaint about Valente is that she didn't give us enough of each nested story to make us (me) care enough about it to come back to it. She gave us almost no characterization so I didn't care about the characters either. Can't make either of those complaints about Mitchell.

Mitchell is brilliant in his ability to shift voice, genre, pacing, structure from story to story. A virtuoso performance. Something to learn from because, while I'm not doing exactly the same thing in da nobble, I am playing with different voices, and different ways of structuring narrative in different contexts.

The big fault here is that the stories don't connect very strongly, so the book doesn't really feel like an integral whole. The "themes" or more likely, inquiries Mitchell is pursuing are so tenuously linked across the different sections that the books can't be said to be about anything in particular. SPOILER Mitchell recognizes this and even hedges his bets by having his composer character--whose masterpiece is the "Cloud Atlas Sextet," a piece with six completely different, but nested themes--explain that the piece (a blueprint for the book's six nested stories) isn't supposed to make direct sense.

Mitchell doesn't signal the reader properly on this one. Part of the purpose of post-structuralist, fragmented prose is that the fragmentation of the text itself signals the reader's mind to depart from the order of ordinary narrative flow. The reader's mind is therefore scrambling for order and making connections between fragments that may or may not exist. The mind is open to diagonal, multilateral, and backwards-flowing links.

Mitchell, on the other hand, gives us too much story here for our minds not to fall in--settle in--with the order of the narrative. So our minds are not primed to make connections, but rather lulled into allowing the author to make the connections for us. If the stories, each broken off at a crucial moment, were left broken off, then, in spite of the clear narrative direction of each, we'd be left casting about for connections. But instead, Mitchell goes back and re-nests the stories on the other side so that each narrative arc is completed. The satisfaction of completing a narrative arc makes it almost impossible to connect the text with another text outside of it, especially when that text is of a different narrative stamp. Every time I try to think about it, my brain slams the door.

If this was his intention then, great, but it's a one-liner: "See? Narrative is coercive. Nyah nyah." If this was not his intention, somebody's gonna have to tell me what was. He gave a virtuoso writing performance, at the expense of the greatness of the novel as a whole. I'll tell you what: for the first half of the read, I was indignant that the jacket said that this was shortlisted for the Man Booker, rather than the winner. For the second half, I increasingly agreed with the jury.

Writing Lesson: If you're telling a story, or pursing an inquiry (and I am, both, in da nobble) then make the connections strong. Be clear with yourself what you're trying to do, and give the reader enough to understand this, too. You can do all this and still give structural food for thought.

Altogether an exciting reading week. Yeah.

August 13, 2008

New Deadline

Not that my deadlines ever hold up, but I've just decided--with Susan's help--that I will be going to WorldCon in Montreal in August 2009 and by then I will have a finished MS of Da Nobble to bring with me.

Just registering it here.

200K

Yikes. Draft Two of da Nobble has reached 200,000 words. That's around 800 pages.

Don't worry, it will be cut. In Draft Three.

Onword.

July 07, 2008

These Kids Today

The aesthetic of choice these days is the aesthetic of exploratory excess. It sets before the reader a world featured as a swirl of competing energies and stimuli; it searches patterns, connections, instances of psychological complexity. The old gestural muteness won't play in these halls.

To some degree, of course, this is a necessary and healthy compensation—fiction suddenly feels enfranchised again. With a new tolerance for ramified expression come new subjects, new perspectives. The dense fabric of contemporary life—its changed ways of doing things, of interacting—is brought more clearly into view. The evolving cultures of science and technology become available, as do more of the vagaries of our destabilized modes of living. Carver's tamped-down narration, guiding us from streetlamp to barstool to sparsely furnished apartment, could never hope to take in the burgeoning culture of virtual simulation (Powers), the domains of science (Goldstein), the endlessly branching nuances of psychological self-awareness (Antrim, Foster Wallace, Eggers), or indeed, scarcely anything of the noun-deprived and process-worshipping way we now conduct our lives.

What is sacrificed, perhaps, is a certain emotional force. Thrilling and dark and expansive as so many of these new expressions are, they have a hard time generating a strong emotional charge. The language, mental and nuanced—like the prose structure itself—often serves a bemusedly ironic sensibility; life is more spectated than suffered. When tragedy does occur, it is more often than not given a black-comedic inflection—as in works by Wallace, Antrim, Eggers, and their ilk—not because the authors can't do powerful conflict and emotion, necessarily, but because the hyperconscious self-reflexiveness of their style is hard to turn off. The seductive cerebral-ironic style, which allows so much, doesn't seem to permit the shift to a full frontal seriousness.

---Sven Birkerts, "Carver's Last Stand" in the Atlantic Online

July 06, 2008

Book Throwin' Update

Thank Og somebody said it so that I don't have to.

After the seemingly universal lovefest for Valente's Orphan's Tales, and owing to the fact that I got In the Night Garden as a very sweet present from badgerbag, plus the fact that I never finished it because the tenth time I threw the book across the room it got badly injured and I had to take it to the book hospital and leave it there forever and never come back ... well, I didn't have the heart, and by that I mean the balls, to say how much I didn't like (i.e. hated) that book. (sorry, badge! Let's still have dinner and talk about it!)

It wasn't just the overheated, nonsensical "lyricism," which vito_excalibur mentions here. It's the fact that she keeps starting stories and never seems to finish them. Everyone's got a limit for nested stories and she surpassed mine with a vengeance. Because of the cheap language, I didn't care about the first characters in the first place. And layering character after situation, after story, after character on top of them just made me forget them only to be reminded of how much I didn't care about them when they came back.

I get what she was trying to do, but if your reader leaves the room before you do it, can it really be said to be done? (That was the sound of one hand clapped to a forehead.)

Plus, I love that vito_excalibur is quoting "A Reader's Manifesto". Everybody needs to read that whole fucking thing right now. When I read it a few years back, I couldn't believe that Myers had managed to attack every lit writer that I had serious isshooz with: McCarthy, Proulx, Delillo, Auster. Gotta love that.

Plus, this lolcats is hysterical:

Oscarwao

In other news, I devoured J.M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians and take back everything I thought about how boring Coetzee must be if everyone is always on about how great he is. The deal with him is sheer density of storytelling. Barbarians is a short novel, but he covers a lot of ground simply because he doesn't waste words thinking or meditating out loud. When a character thinks something, Coetzee states that thought in a sentence or two and moves on. Yet, the whole novel gives a very slow, meditative mood. I haven't quite figured out how he does it, but it's a huge writing lesson for me for when I go back in and revise da nobble.

Speaking of which, I have three letters to catch up on today. Off to the races ...

July 01, 2008

Pledge

I'm going to Panama at the end of July and I still have a bunch of new stuff to write on da nobble before I can start the long, cantankerous process of cutting out the old stuff. So my pledge is to work my ass off on the new stuff and get all new text filled in before I go to Panama on July 25. That means writing every day.

I have 24 days, starting today, and 25 new letters to write (da nobble is epistolary, dig?) These letters are from the peripheral correspondents and aren't required to move the central story forward. They're also much shorter letters because these correspondents have to be brief for various reasons: one is illiterate and has others write for him, one is a child, and one is simply writing an introductory note to the other letters. So these are very brief letters, but they do need to be coordinated to the longer letters.

So, basically, I need to write at least one letter a day, every day, until I leave for Panama. So that's my pledge. At least one letter at day from here on out, and the whole thing done by the time I leave for Panama. Panama will be a vacation and I will let the whole thing rest then, for two weeks. Basta.

June 19, 2008

wordle

Wordlenobble
Via Justine, this wordle word cloud of the most used words in da nobble.

Finish This Year

It's also occurred to me today that da nobble was conceived and drafted entirely within the Bush administration. That's why it's so damn dark. I need to get it finished before the election so I can maintain the proper mood.

Because, you know, McCain won't win.

June 18, 2008

Wow

Da Nobble is about to hit the 200k word mark.

That's a lot. In traditional pages it's between 670 and 800 pages. That's a lot.

Wow, that's a lot. And I still have more to add.

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.

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