08 October 2015

Anecdotes on Literary Popularity and Difficulty

When interviewed by a reporter from the Wall Street Journal regarding Thomas Ligotti, Jeff VanderMeer was asked: "Can Ligotti’s work find a broader audience, such as with people who tend to read more pop horror such as Stephen King?" His response was, it seems to me, accurate:
Ligotti tells a damn fine tale and a creepy one at that. You can find traditional chills to enjoy in his work or you can find more esoteric delights. I think his mastery of a sense of unease in the modern world, a sense of things not being quite what they’re portrayed to be, isn’t just relevant to our times but also very relatable. But he’s one of those writers who finds a broader audience because he changes your brain when you read him—like Roberto Bolano. I’d put him in that camp too—the Bolano of 2666. That’s a rare feat these days.
This reminded me of a few moments from past conversations I've had about the difficulty of modernist texts and their ability to find audiences. I have often fallen into the assumption that difficulty precludes any sort of popularity, and that popularity signals shallowness of writing, even though I know numerous examples that disprove this assumption.

When I was an undergraduate at NYU, I took a truly life-changing seminar on Faulkner and Hemingway with the late Ilse Dusoir Lind, a great Faulknerian. Faulkner was a revelation for me, total love at first sight, and I plunged in with gusto. Dr. Lind thought I was amusing, and we talked a lot and corresponded a bit later, and she wrote me a recommendation letter when I was applying to full-time jobs for the first time. (I really need to write something about her. She was a marvel.) Anyway, we got to talking once about the difficulty of Faulkner's best work, and she said that she had recently (this would be 1995 or so) had a conversation with somebody high up at Random House who said that Faulkner was their most consistent seller, and their bestselling writer across the years. I don't know if this is true or not, or if I remember the details accurately, or if Dr. Lind heard the details accurately, but I can believe it, especially given how common Faulkner's work is in schools.

And this was ten years before the Oprah Book Club's "Summer of Faulkner". I love something Meghan O'Rourke wrote in her chronicle of trying to read Faulkner with Oprah:
Going online in search of help, I worried about what I might find. What if no one liked Faulkner, or—worse—the message boards were full of politically correct protests of his attitude toward women, or rife with therapeutic platitudes inspired by the incest and suicide that underpin the book? But on the boards, which I found after clicking past a headline about transvestites who break up families, I discovered scores of thoughtful posts that were bracingly enthusiastic about Faulkner. Even the grumpy readers—and there were some, of course—seemed to want to discover what everyone else was excited about. What I liked best was that people were busy addressing something no one talks about much these days: the actual experience of reading, the nuts and bolts of it.
We often underestimate the common reader.

06 October 2015

"Yes, We Really Do Want to Take Your Guns"

"In other words, yes, we really do want to take your guns. Maybe not all of them. But a lot of them."
—Josh Marshall, Talking Points Memo

Okay. All I've got's an antique rifle that would likely explode if fired, so no big deal to me. I would love to live in a country with far, far fewer guns. One of the reasons I think the NRA should be considered complicit with murder is their careful collusion over the last few decades with gun manufacturers to keep a flooded market profitable by using every scare tactic they could imagine to encourage people to keep buying. (I've written about all this, and other aspects of gun culture, plenty of times before.) I'm quite comfortable around guns, since I grew up with them as an everyday object (everything from .22 pistols to fully-automatic machine guns), and I have many friends who are gun owners, even gun nuts. But though I sometimes find guns attractive, even fascinating, I don't like them and I wish there were vastly fewer. The Oregon shooting happened at a place I'm familiar with, half an hour from the home of one of my best, most beloved friends. The present reality of mass shootings in the US is grotesque, and the easy availability of guns is a major part of the problem.

But I think Josh Marshall is delusional. No matter how much you wish for it, the guns in the United States are not going to be confiscated, and not just because of a lack of political will. The NRA sells the fear of confiscation to gun nuts all the time, but it is not just unlikely and not just politically difficult — given the amount of guns in the US, it is as close to impossible to achieve as any such thing could be. The horse left the barn at least forty years ago.

Certainly, it's valuable for activists to come out and say what they want rather than to lie or, at best, hedge their commentary to appear less radical. I like radicals, especially nonviolent ones, so I'm all for being openly radical. Own your radicalism!

And the idealism in Marshall's blog post is nice. I understand the feeling. But it's fairy-tale utopian. You want to think big, to be honest about your ultimate goals, and so you want to stop talking about things like universal background checks and maybe some restrictions on certain sizes of magazines and certain styles of rifles, things that might be possible to accomplish but are clearly small measures. I get it. I would like to stop talking about how I'll pay next month's bills and instead dream about winning the lottery.

But at a certain point you have to explain how you want to go about achieving your dream. What are the actual mechanics? What are the mechanisms that would bring your dream to reality? The fact is, I have a vastly better chance of winning the lottery than the US has any chance of significant gun confiscation.

Let's pretend we live in a fairy land where somehow the government would pass laws like the ones Australia famously passed. For basic background on that and how it worked, here's an overview from Vox. There are a bunch of things in there that are pretty much politically inconceivable in the US, even if they would likely survive challenge in the courts. But we're playing Let's Pretend.

05 October 2015

Collected Fiction by Leena Krohn

The most peculiar property of language is its symbolic function. The writer exchanges meanings for marks, while the reader performs the opposite task. There are no meanings outside us, or if there are, we do not know them. Personal meanings are made with our own hands. Their preparation is a kind of alchemy. Everything that we call rationality demands imagination, and if we did not have the capacity to imagine, we could not even speak morality or conscience.

—Leena Krohn, "Afterword: When the Viewer Vanishes"
Ann and Jeff VanderMeer have done wonders for the availability of contemporary Finnish writing in English with their Cheeky Frawg press, and in December they will release their greatest book yet: Collected Fiction by Leena Krohn.

I've been a passionate fan of Leena Krohn's work ever since I first read her book Tainaron ten years ago. I sought out the only other translation of her writings in English available at the time, Doña Quixote & Gold of Ophir, and was further impressed. I read Datura when Cheeky Frawg published it in 2013. It's all remarkable work.

Collected Fiction brings together all of those books, plus more: The Pelican's New Clothes (children's fiction from the 1970s, just as entrancing as her adult work later), Pereat Mundus (which I've yearned to read ever since Krohn mentioned it when I interviewed her), some excerpts and stories from various books published over the last 25 years, essays by others (including me) that give some perspective on her career, and an afterword by Leena Krohn herself.

This book is as important a publishing event in its own way as New Directions' release earlier this year of Clarice Lispector's Complete Stories. It's a similarly large book (850 pages), and though not Krohn's complete stories, it gives a real overview of her career and provides immeasurable pleasure.

04 October 2015

Zombie Boy

People often ask me, "What do you do to pass the time up there in New Hampshire?"

Well, when we're not cavorting with moose, celebrating the glories of our granite, and generally living free before we die, some of us make silly movies.

One that I was involved with is called Zombie Boy, which was written and directed by my friend Jamie Sharps. Against all odds, it now has distribution via MVD Media. It should be coming to various streaming platforms soon, and you can order the DVD from most of the places online where you'd order DVDs. (Here's the Amazon link, for instance.) There are even rumors of it showing up in some brick-and-mortar stores.

It's a spaghetti-western-style comic adventure involving people who've been zombified by a green serum. It's not a B movie, it's (intentionally) a Z movie. ("Z for zombie, yeah!" I hear somebody say...) We didn't have much money, and it took a couple years to get it all filmed and then another year to do post-production.

And yes, I am Zombie Boy. 

17 September 2015

Blood: Stories Now Available for Pre-Order

You can now order my upcoming collection Blood: Stories from the publisher, Black Lawrence Press. The book will be released in January 2016, and BLP is offering it for a bit of a discount before the publication date (it's a big book — 100,000 words — so will retail for $18.95).

Should you pre-order it? I don't know. Yes, of course, I would like you to. And if you're going to order it online, this is a good way to do it, because you'll get it pretty quickly and a larger percentage of your money will go to BLP, so you'll help a small publisher stay solvent. Once the book is published, you'll also be able to buy it from bookstores, and since I support people spending as much money as possible in local bookstores, that's a great way to get it as well.

Actually, you should probably both pre-order it and buy it from bookstores, because why would you want only one copy? You need to be able to give them away to friends — or, if you don't like the book, to enemies...

13 September 2015

A Woolfian Summer

The new school year has started, which means I've officially ended the work I did for a summer research fellowship from the University of New Hampshire Graduate School, although there are still a few loose ends I hope to finish in the coming days and weeks. I've alluded to that work previously, but since it's mostly finished, I thought it might be useful to chronicle some of it here, in case it is of interest to anyone else. (Parts of this are based on my official report, which is why it's a little formal.)

I spent the summer studying the literary context of Virginia Woolf’s writings in the 1930s. The major result of this was that I developed a spreadsheet to chronicle her reading from 1930-1938 (the period during which she conceived and wrote her novel The Years and her book-length essay Three Guineas), a tool which from the beginning I intended to share with other scholars and readers, and so created with Google Sheets so that it can easily be viewed, updated, downloaded, etc. It's not quite done: I haven't finished adding information from Woolf's letters from 1936-1938, and there's one big chunk of reading notebook information (mostly background material for Three Guineas) that still needs to be added, but there's a plenty there.

Originally, I expected (and hoped) that I would spend a lot of time working with periodical sources, but within a few weeks this proved both impractical and unnecessary to my overall goals. The major literary review in England during this period was the Times Literary Supplement (TLS), but working with the TLS historical database proved difficult because there is no way to access whole issues easily, since every article is a separate PDF. If you know what you’re looking for, or can search by title or author, you can find what you need; but if you want to browse through issues, the database is cumbersome and unwieldy. Further, I had not realized the scale of material — the TLS was published weekly, and most reviews were 800-1,000 words, so they were able to publish about 2,000 reviews each year. Just collecting the titles, authors, and reviewers of every review would create a document the length of a hefty novel. The other periodical of particular interest is the New Statesman & Nation (earlier titled New Statesman & Athenaeum), which Leonard Woolf had been an editor of, and to which he contributed many reviews and essays. Dartmouth College has a complete set of the New Statesman in all its forms, but copies are in storage, must be requested days in advance, and cannot leave the library.

All of this work could be done, of course, but I determined that it would not be a good use of my time, because much more could be discovered through Woolf’s diaries, letters, and reading notebooks, supplemented by the diaries, letters, and biographies of other writers. (As well  as  Luedeking and Edmonds’ bibliography of Leonard Woolf, which includes summaries of all of his NS&N writings — perfectly adequate for my work.)

And so I began work on the spreadsheet. Though I chronicled all of Woolf’s references to her reading from 1930-1938, my own interest was primarily in what contemporary writers she was reading, and how that reading may have affected her conception and structure of The Years and, to a lesser extent, Three Guineas (to a lesser extent because her references in that book itself are more explicit, her purpose clearer). As I began the work, I feared I was on another fruitless path. During the first years of the 1930s, Woolf was reading primarily so as to write the literary essays in The Common Reader, 2nd Series, which contains little about contemporary writing, and from the essays themselves we know what she was reading.

But then in 1933 I struck gold with this entry from 2 September 1933:

04 September 2015

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

To make Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora make sense, I had to imagine a metafictional frame for it.

The novel tells the story of a generation starship sent in the year 2545 from the Solar System to Tau Ceti. It begins toward the end of the journey, as the ship approaches its destination and eventually sends a landing party to a planet they name Aurora. The narrator, we quickly learn, is the ship's artificial intelligence system, which for various reasons is learning to tell stories, a process that, among other things, helps it sort through and make sense of details. This conceit furthers Robinson's interest in exposition, an interest apparent at least since the Mars trilogy and explicit in 2312. As a writer, he seems most at home narrating scientific processes and describing the features of landscapes, which does not always lead to the most dynamic prose or storytelling, and he seems to have realized this and adjusted to make his writerly strengths into, if not his books' whole reason for being, then a meaningful feature of their structure. I didn't personally care for 2312 much, but I thought it brilliantly melded the aspirations of both Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell for science fiction in the way that it offered explicit, even pedagogical, passages of exposition with bits of adventure story and scientific romance.

What soon struck me while reading Aurora was that aside from the interstellar travel, it did not at all seem to be a novel about human beings more than 500 years in the future. The AI is said to be a quantum computer, and it is certainly beyond current computer technology, but it doesn't seem breathtakingly different from the bleeding edges of current technology. Medical knowledge seems mostly consistent with current medical knowledge, as does knowledge of most other scientific fields. People still wear eyeglasses, and their "wristbands" are smartwatches. Historical and cultural references are to things we know rather than to much of anything that's happened between 2015 and 2545 (or later — the ship's population seems to have developed no culture of their own). The English language is that of today. Social values are consistent with average bourgeois heterosexual American social values.

500 years is a lot of time. Think about the year 1515. Thomas More started writing Utopia, which would be published the next year. Martin Luther's 95 Theses were two years away. The rifle wouldn't be invented for five more years. Copernicus had just begun thinking about his heliocentric theory of the universe. The first iterations of the germ theory of disease were thirty years away. The births of Shakespeare and Galileo were 49 years in the future. Isaac Newton wouldn't be born until the middle of the next century.

Aurora offers nothing comparable to the changes in human life and knowledge from 1515 to 2015 except for the space ship. The world of the novel seems to have been put on pause from now till the launch of the ship.

25 August 2015

"The Last Vanishing Man"

Littleton Opera House, Littleton, NH c.1900, a location in the story
I have a new story — my first (but not last) of this year — now available on the Conjunctions website— "The Last Vanishing Man".

This one's a bit of a departure for me, in that it is a serious story that will not, I'm told, make you want to kill yourself after you read it. In fact, one of my primary goals when writing it was to write something not entirely nihilistic. Various people have, over the years, gently suggested that perhaps I might try writing a ... well ... a nice story now and then.

(I actually think I've only written one story that is not nice, "Patrimony" in Black Static last year. And maybe "On the Government of the Living". Well, maybe "How Far to Englishman's Bay", too. And— okay, I get it...)

So "The Last Vanishing Man" is a story that has an (at least somewhat) uplifting ending, and the good people triumph, or at least survive, and the bad person is punished, or at least ... well, I won't go into details...

Here's the first paragraph, to whet your appetite:
I saw The Great Omega perform three or four times, including that final, strange show. I was ten years old then. It was the summer of the Sacco and Vanzetti trial, a time when vaudeville and touring acts were quickly fading behind the glittering light of motion pictures and the crackling squawk of radios. What I remember of the performance is vivid, but I am wary of its vividness, as I suspect that vividness derives not from the original moment, but from how much effort I’ve put into remembering it. What is memory, what is reconstruction, what is misdirection?
Continue reading at Conjunctions...

24 August 2015

Alice Sheldon at 100

Alice Sheldon was born 100 years ago today, which means that in a certain sense, James Tiptree, Jr. is 100, because Sheldon wrote under that name. Yet James Tiptree, Jr. wasn't really born until 1968, when the first Tiptree story, "Birth of a Salesman", appeared in the March issue of Analog.

Nonetheless, we can and should celebrate Sheldon's centenary. She's primarily remembered for Tiptree, of course, but as Julie Phillips so deftly showed in her biography, Sheldon's life was far more than just that byline.

I've written about Tiptree a lot over the years, though nothing recently, as other work has taken me in other directions. In honor of Alice Sheldon's birthday, here are some of the things I've written in the past—
If you're new to Tiptree, you can read two stories online at Lightspeed: "Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death" and "And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side".

19 August 2015

New Website

It was time I had a website under my own name, and not just this here Mumpsimus. After all, I am more than a mumpsimus! Or so I tell myself.

Thus: matthewcheney.net!

Because my book of short stories is coming out in January, the focus of the site is my fiction more than anything else. At the moment, there's nothing there that isn't also here, aside from some pictures. But I'm sure I'll figure out something unique to host there in the coming weeks, months, years...