31 July 2005

A Conversation with John Benson

I sometimes fall prey to a silly and mistaken idea: that small-press 'zines are something new. And then I discover someone like John Benson, who has been publishing his 'zine Not One of Us for 19 years now, and has garnered quite a few accolades during that time. After Sonya Taaffe introduced us last year, I knew that I would want to interview John, but other obligations stole my attention, and I didn't get around to it until now. It was, I hope you'll agree, very much worth the wait.

When did Not One of Us begin? What made you want to create it?

To explain how Not One of Us began, I have to back up a couple of steps. When I first met my (now) wife Anke Kriske, I was a doctoral student in history and she was an aspiring author who was not a native English speaker and did not know how to get started. For three years, before and after we married, I edited her stories and tried to market them. Finally in 1984 a story of hers ("Transitus") was accepted by Ronny Kaye at a new horror zine called Doppelganger. Soon after that, Anke and I started writing a non-fiction column called "Morbid History and Practice" for the magazine. (We used to restore graveyards as a hobby.) Ronny then began to send me manuscripts to read, and when he joined the Peace Corps and left for Niger, he turned the editorship of Doppelganger over to me.

I had never intended to become a horror editor, hadn't actually read much horror in my youth. So I had a lot of catching up to do. Because Lovecraft was having one of his periodical revivals at the time and Ronny had been fond of Lovecraftian fiction, I plowed through as much HPL as I could. I also discovered that before he left, Ronny had accepted quite a backlog of stories, so I didn't have a lot of flexibility to change the mix of content. I tried to satisfy my editorial and creative needs by writing clever introductions to stories, but eventually I grew frustrated.

I was getting some good stories that I couldn't fit into Doppelganger, and I began to dream about a publication that was totally my own (well, my own with Anke). I didn't want to do another strictly horror zine; I wanted to get at a theme, the notion of "otherness," or in its purest form, "radical alienation."

So in early 1986 I let some fellow editors know that I intended to publish a story collection that might turn into a magazine. I already had a story ("Chiaroscuro") from William Relling, Jr., that I thought would make a good lead. Then Peggy Nadramia, the editor of Grue, sent Wayne Allen Sallee my way with the second half of what had been a 9000-word story. She published the first half as a stand-alone, and I published the sequel, "Take the 'A' Train", in our debut issue, which came out in September 1986. Both stories ended up being reprinted by Karl Edward Wagner in The Year's Best Horror, and Not One of Us had its first bit of critical acclaim.

How did you go about finding writers and readers for Not One of Us in the beginning?

Many of the early authors in Not One of Us were legacies from Doppelganger, so the genre mix was still skewed toward horror. I did manage, after the first issue, to purge archaic-language Lovecraftiana, and we gradually became more focused thematically. Scavenger's Newsletter, which Janet Fox had just started, helped us reach the pool of writers we needed in order to keep going. We also got a boost in submissions when Ellen Datlow honorably mentioned two stories and a poem from our 1988 issues in The Year's Best Fantasy. The next year, Gary Braunbeck's "Matters of Family" (Not One of Us #5) was reprinted in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. I'm not the world's best salesperson, so I think we stay afloat largely because of the number of stories and poems (now more than 80) from Not One of Us that get honorable mentions in Best ofs and nominations for various awards.

Are there writers you published early on who have since become well known? Or writers who did not and should have become well known?

Some of our early writers, in addition to Sallee, Relling, and Braunbeck, have become pretty well-known, I'd say: Tom Piccirilli, David C. Kopaska-Merkel, Gerard Daniel Houarner, Jeff VanderMeer, D.F. Lewis, Elizabeth Massie, Lucy Taylor. But I can't take credit for making these folks' careers: most of them were being published in other magazines, too.

A few early writers became better known in other genres or roles: I've lost track of how many mysteries Dan Crawford has had published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine; Mark McLaughlin has been a fine editor (The Urbanite) as well as a talented writer. One writer I wish had become better known is Jack Pavey.

Among the people who began writing for us later, Sonya Taaffe is starting to get some attention. Patricia Russo has been published all over the place, but the world still sorely needs a Russo story collection.

Do you see Not One of Us as providing a space for fiction that is different from what the major SF magazines are interested in?

Not One of Us occupies an interesting niche. The editorial philosophy of the magazine reflects my own personal taste in genre fiction. To me the scariest and most deeply moving horror stories are not about monsters or about good vs. evil, but rather about the reader's own fears and discomforts. Similarly, for Not One of Us, fantasy isn't about pseudo-medieval worlds, science fiction isn't about space opera (or fantasy in disguise), Westerns are not about gunfights. In our zine, it's all about the characters.

We're radically character-oriented. All the wondrous settings and complex plots in the world will fail to convince me if at the center of the tale there isn't a protagonist with whom I can somehow empathize. I don't have to like that character: heaven knows we've had some pretty nasty protagonists. But I want to get some insight into the character, and vicariously into myself. Also, I like stories, and characters, with edge.

Music is also an integral part of Not One of Us. In the introduction to each issue, I try to use song lyrics to link the stories into an issue-theme that emerges naturally from the stories and poems we have accepted. I also enjoy stories and poems that contain musical allusions.

If somebody picked up one of the early issues of Not One of Us and compared it to one of the newest issues, what do you think they would notice?

When Sonya Taaffe and I decided to start a Not One of Us website last year to promote the hardcopy zine, we went back and read all of the issues from 1986 to the present. We were both surprised at the underlying consistency of theme. But Not One of Us has gone through two important changes within that framework.

After our two sons were born, Anke and I had trouble doing Not One of Us by ourselves. I have read every story and poem submitted to the magazine since its inception. Anke used to second-read a whole lot of the submissions (plus she was the typist, which we editors don't have to worry about much these days!). But first her writing (her novel A Haven in Winter was published in December 1991), then the discovery that our younger son has a learning disability made it hard for her to keep playing such a time-consuming role. (She still reads quite a few stories and generally has to put up with me.)

By pure coincidence, I found someone who could help. Tina Reigel was a work-study student at the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, where I worked for a long time as a public opinion analyst. We discovered that we shared common interests and tastes in genre fiction, as well as music, which has always been a major background theme for Not One of Us. Just as I was leaving the Roper Center in 1992 to take my new (current) job in Boston, I asked her to review some submissions, and it became clear that we needed to be working together. I consider Not One of Us to be an expression of my soul, and I don't often allow people into its workings. This was an exception.

Tina's main role on Not One of Us was Theme Enforcer. She was so disciplined, so dedicated to keeping on theme that she'd say things like, "I don't think we want stories like this one in our magazine [emphasis added]," or more ominously, "[pause...] John, have you read this?" During her three years at Not One of Us, we tightened the theme, got rid of most of the humor (which we generally put in an annual, variously-titled series of story collections, apart from Not One of Us), and reached an intensity of creepy, uncomfortable insight into people's minds.

The second change began when Sonya Taaffe came along. I've never been fond of most fantasy, to be blunt. I find it difficult to identify with characters in fantasy settings, and I dislike distortions of history on the excuse of "alternative universes." I sometimes decried the invasion of fantasy into everything, especially science fiction, which seemed for some time to have disappeared as a genre.

But Sonya showed me that fantasy can be compatible with my vision for Not One of Us. Not only has she had a story in every issue of the magazine since #26 in 2001, but she has had an important impact on how I view fantasy. She pointed out that I had already been publishing stories that could be called fantasy, quite a few of them by her lights, including terrific tales by Patricia Russo and Jennifer Rachel Baumer. The trick is finding fantasy writers who concentrate on characterization, while taking advantage of the opportunities afforded by fantasy conventions to address the concept of "otherness."

What happens when you have a story or poem that you very much want to publish, but it doesn't fit a theme you have for an issue? Has this ever happened?

That's actually the reason we started publishing our annual, variously-titled non-Not One of Us collections (what we call our "one-offs"), of which we have now done seventeen. There are stories I just plain like. Most of the humorous stories go in our one-offs, because I don't want them to disrupt the mood of Not One of Us. I'm not without a sense of humor. One of my favorite such stories, "The Exceedingly Praeternatural & More Than a Little Disconcerting Life-Giving Properties of the Paelescu Ray" by Mark McLaughlin, went in a one-off called Split. Also, the more cheerful stories, especially those with fantasy elements, tend to go in these collections. And sometimes I just can't resist a good gross-out.

The titles of the one-offs are different each year, and the title theme of each one arises organically from the stories we have on hand. Some of the one-offs are pretty bawdy; others, like the recent Clarity, are a lot more elegant.

After nineteen years, one might think "otherness" as a central idea would get old. What has kept it new for you?

The reason the "otherness" theme doesn't get old for me is that there are so many ways to approach it. "Other" is a nearly universal concept. All groups use "other" to define themselves through exclusion of those who are not like them, so genre, social milieu, and culture do not limit the literary expression of the concept. Exclusion is a painful process most of us have experienced at some time: being left out of a clique, being told we're not good enough, that we're dumb or ugly or the wrong color or religion. So that's the starting point for people to understand even more extreme forms of "otherness."

Also, I don't think enough genre fiction deals with "otherness," so it has become almost a quest for me, an attempt to fill the void. We publish (even including the one-off collections, which are often not especially "otherness"-related) only 17-18 stories and 20 poems per year. I know of people who read that many romance novels annually, so I don't really feel like I'm choking myself or others on my obsession.

While the premise of our zine sounds depressing, I'm perfectly happy to see a character find positive ways to relate to other people and to lead a life. Stories about "otherness" do not have to be nihilistic, or even pessimistic, so the tone varies, too. And because I insist on feeling some personal connection with the protagonists of our stories, each tale should, if I'm doing my job right, be different from the others.

I don't like "larger" agendas, which I find limiting and distracting. I should also mention that I hate excuse-making and preachiness, including people whining about being "other." One-step program: deal with it, in whatever way you feel you must. Understanding motives is not the same as excusing behavior. It is clearly possible to be "other" without being an ax-murderer.

The other thing that keeps it new is that my own perspective evolves over time. I've already mentioned the shifts that have occurred under the influence of the strong personalities "on staff." But even on my own, my personal preferences change. I learn to appreciate new things that come to me, especially from new and younger writers who see life from a different perspective. In a sense, my reading and editing are part of the living process itself, and I think it shows in the freshness of the magazine over time.

Are there things you've seen in the slush pile over and over again that you would really like to never see again?

That's the other side of the coin. Does the "otherness" theme sometimes get old? Yes, but mainly because a lot of writers don't seem to perceive "otherness" except through a small number of themes that have been used many times before. Our guidelines list what we generally do and don't like:

"We crave characters (human or otherwise) who are different and who act the way they do out of plausible (if occasionally insane) motives. We need not like a character, but we want to [have some understanding of] her/him/it. Overused themes to avoid: vampires, alcoholic villains without any understanding of their motives, tales about writers, sword and sorcery, deals with the devil, and revenge stories that have no other point, especially if the punishment far exceeds the crime."

But more generally, it is stories that have no protagonist with whom I can share the experience of "otherness" that leave me flat.

What has changed in the SF field (broadly defined) since you first started editing and publishing?

When I started Not One of Us, Lovecraft was having one of his periodic moments of popularity in horror fiction, and Stephen King was, well, king. It was the start of the desktop publishing era, and dozens of horror magazines were popping up. Some of the best were The Horror Show, Grue, and Cemetery Dance, followed a few years later by Palace Corbie, The Urbanite, and The Third Alternative, perhaps the first major publication that self-consciously published slipstream. For a while, OMNI published some of the best science fiction I'd ever read, in a style quite different from what I'd consumed in my youth. Splatter-punk was all the rage in the late 1980s, but that went away. Then for a while in the late 1990s, horror hit a dry spell, at least financially. But new influences like anime, a perfect match for the Not One of Us theme, have regenerated all three genres.

Right now my favorite author is probably Caitlin R. Kiernan. Dancy Flammarion and Deacon Silvey are two of my favorite characters, perfect Not One of Us protagonists.

The other main change has been technological, including the boom in e-zines, which has eaten into the market for hardcopy zines. The Internet has made it so much easier for people to share their literary interests, even apart from the publishing world. Fanfic and LiveJournals are an important part of how writers, editors, and readers communicate. Fortunately it seems as though there are still a lot of folks who like to hold a hardcopy book or magazine in their hands.

Have your goals and aspirations for Not One of Us changed over the years?

When we first started Not One of Us, I both overestimated and underestimated where we would be today. I dreamed of making at least a modest amount of money off Not One of Us, piggybacking it with Anke's burgeoning writing career. I think I've nearly broken even on the magazine financially over the years: there are a lot more expensive vices.

I never imagined that Not One of Us would last 19 years, never thought I would have an experience so intensely personal over so many changes in my life. Not One of Us is me, pure and simple. The three people who have worked with me on the magazine are the rare ones who share that vision. I write medical and policy journal articles at work, I have had 100+ poems published, but if I were to die today, I would want people to judge my "literary" life by Not One of Us.


Lots of things out there to cause you to leave here:
  • Some new unbooked blogs: Dracula Blogged and This Date, from Henry David Thoreau's Journal. I got the links from The Little Professor, who discusses them briefly, with some good ideas and questions about how they work and why. She's put up a lot of good posts, recently (including a review of Dozois's latest Year's Best Science Fiction).

  • Speaking of a lot of good posts recently, the academic group blog The Valve has been opened wide and spouting great ideas and discussions over the past week. There was John Holbo's post about John Crowley, and Crowley showed up to join the discussion in the comments. John Holbo then had an interesting piece on "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Pulp". And Ray Davis on "The Liebestod of the Author", with a fascinating anecdote about a Kate Wilhelm workshop at Clarion. And Miriam Burstein (the aforementioned Little Professor) on academic prose.

  • Wheatland Press has updated their website! You can now pre-order a bunch of upcoming anthologies (and need I remind you yet again that TEL: Stories includes a reprint of Greer Gilman's "Jack-Daw's Pack"? Your life, mind, and claims on humanity are impoverished without it, you know...) Last year's Polyphony 4 placed stories in a bunch of Best of the Year collections, including the upcoming Best American Short Stories, and is currently nominated for a few World Fantasy Awards. There are also new limited edition hardcovers of the Polyphony anthologies, signed by all contributor, and with a new introduction and a new story in each.

  • George Saunders has a new story at The New Yorker: "CommComm". I can't resist quoting the beginning:
    Tuesday morning, Jillian from Disasters calls. Apparently an airman named Loolerton has poisoned a shitload of beavers. I say we don't kill beavers, we harvest them, because otherwise they nibble through our Pollution Control Devices (P.C.D.s) and polluted water flows out of our Retention Area and into the Eisenhower Memorial Wetland, killing beavers.

    "That makes sense," Jillian says, and hangs up.

    The press has a field day. "AIR FORCE KILLS BEAVERS TO SAVE BEAVERS," says one headline. "MURDERED BEAVERS SPEAK OF AIRFORCE CRUELTY," says another.
  • A profile of Kelly Link & Gavin Grant, the people behind Small Beer Press. There are some little inaccuracies in the article, but it's nice to have a peek behind the scenes. (via Dave Schwartz)

  • Simon Callow on the 50th anniversary of Waiting for Godot.

  • A conversation with John Irving and Stephen King. Maybe title it Men with Plots.

  • Doug Lain on how to get published today.

  • John Quiggin at Crooked Timber has an excellent question:
    ...one vision of the future disturbs me. I was reading Charles Stross' Iron Sunrise ... set in the 24th century, and he introduces a character who had inherited the masthead of The Times and announced his profession as "warblogger".

    I don't really suppose our little virtual community is going to last a thousand years, or even 300, but just in case, can't we find some way to agree on a better name than "blogger"?
  • Derik Badman at the great MadInkBeard weblog has been writing a lot recently about comics.

  • Old, weird movie posters. (via Scribblingwoman)

30 July 2005

World Fantasy Award Nominations

I happily took a break from a mound of reading and writing to visit some weblogs and hope for perhaps an idea for a short post hereabouts. I was happy to see Gwenda had posted the nominations for the World Fantasy Awards, and was amazed by all the richness in each category, when suddenly I got to the "Special Award: Non-Professional" nominations, and saw my name there.

Clearly, Gwenda was playing a silly joke. So I hopped over to the official website to see what the real nominations were. Gwenda was not joking.



I'm too stunned to come up with a good response, except to say thanks to the judges, and congratulations to all the nominees. It's a magnificent list of writers, editors, publishers, and artists, and I'm amazed to be in such company.

26 July 2005

Breath and Bones by Susann Cokal

Below is the latest in a continuing series of guest reviews. Our reviewer this time is Catherynne M. Valente, author of the acclaimed novel The Labyrinth, as well as Yume No Hon: The Book of Dreams, Apocrypha, and Oracles, all published by Prime Books. Catherynne recently sold a four-book series of fairy tales to Bantam/Dell.

Breath and Bones by Susann Cokal
a guest review by Catherynne M. Valente

In this postmodern world of meta-narrative and fractured plotlines, books-within-books and fictional footnotes, it's rare to find a book that holds to convention which such white-knuckle ferocity as Susann Cokal's second novel, Breath and Bones.

I'd like to say it's brave, radical simplicity, a return to solid, un-pretentious literature, but I can't.

In the interests of disclosure, I should mention that I was once, very briefly, a student of Ms. Cokal's at Cal Poly SLO. I went into this book with solid expectations, and was astounded at every turn by the sheer audacity of the awfulness laid out in the pages of Breath and Bones.

The protagonist, with predictable "flaming red hair," "sapphire eyes," and "ruby lips" (all phrases which I humbly submit should be officially excised from the Allowable Novel Phrases as a Triumvirate of Evil) is Famke, a Danish beauty who dutifully follows the storyline we have come to expect from such women: she is raised in a convent where she discovers her first quotidian twinges of sexuality with the other girls, so that her story will have an edgy spark of lesbianism. However, with equal typicality, she finds that Sapphism essentially unsatisfying. (I mean, we all know that a penis is necessary for that "shimmering feeling Down There," don't we? I wish I were kidding. That's a direct quote, complete with Capitalization.) A good girl at heart, she is called "wild" by the nuns for no particular reason other than her good looks and a particularly melodramatic scene involving exploding soap (again, not kidding. In hindsight, I believe the exploding soap was actually foreshadowing) and forced into a life of one partner after the other in the exotic Old West--where she hits, the jacket promises, all the major landmarks: gold mines, Mormons, California spa towns, and brothels--after her heartless Pre-Raphaelite lover, Albert, leaves her with nothing after using her as a model for his masterpiece. Of course, his letter telling her he loves her and wants her back arrives just as she's left for America to look for him...does this sound familiar? It should--you can find it on Lifetime any day of the week.

This is a romance novel that thinks it's too good for the genre.

The problem is, Famke is a horrible woman, and despite the narrative's assurances that we must love her, the reader cannot identify with such a shallow, idiotic, and careless person. She is careless in the sense of Gatsby's Daisy Buchanan--in her selfish pursuit of the man who left her, she ruins the lives of countless people, even causes the death of a few, and actually vandalizes her lover's paintings in a very precious attempt to "improve" them. She has no ambition but to be a model for this man, and the endless pages of her masturbatory daydreaming about how wonderful it will be to take care of him and hold still for all eternity are truly nauseating. But everyone, everyone falls in love with her, because she is just the most beautiful thing that ever lived. They fall in love with her at first sight, and they search the world for her until they die. She doesn't even have to say a word. When she is reduced to prostitution, her john is happy just to look at her, and asks for no more. This is facile, flaccid storytelling that even fairy tales would decry. Breath and Bones is full of such precious and convenient scenes, scenes which verge on salacious material, but just cannot take the leap. In fact, the story opens with a group of people who have had her body embalmed so that they can all look at it as much as they like--there was the seed of a truly disturbing and fascinating story, there. It's too bad Cokal was more interested in creating this high-class Mary Sue without an ounce of Daisy Buchanan's strength of character.

Yet, while this cliched romance-novel set up is adhered to with loyalty verging on religion, it has an essentially conservative bent. Famke does not really enjoy sex and engages in it with anyone other than Albert only with reluctance. Her first orgasms are practically forced via 19th century vibrating machines. In by far the novel's most disgusting and disturbing turn, Famke cannot even cease referring to her genitals as "Down There" and sex as "that shimmering feeling Down There" when she has had sex with many men and the previously mentioned machine. This bizarre infantilization is part of what turns Breath and Bones into the exploits of a vapid fool traipsing about the Old West with all the entitlement of Paris Hilton, her obsession and bad behavior rewarded time and time again, simply because she is beautiful. Yet we are given no reason to assume this is satire, no knowing narrator to tell us we are walking through Vanity Fair, that we are meant to believe Famke is rotten--on the contrary, over and over she is shown in an almost saintly light, right down to her over-dramatic, martyred end, which, by the way, involves a very large explosion that packs all the subtlety of, well, any large explosion. Famke is the whole of this novel, and while Cokal may want us to believe her Danish lass a Becky Sharp, she falls far short of the mark, and leaves the story rudderless.

Breath and Bones is truly, shockingly bad. Nothing about it struck the right note, and much of it was nonsensical--for example, like any self-respecting romantic heroine, Famke is consumptive. Though she has TB from a very young age, an advanced enough case to vomit up blood quite frequently, she miraculously fails to infect her entire boat full of immigrants, anyone on Ellis Island, on successive trains, or in successive brothels. She has Hollywood TB, you see, where it simply makes you attractively weak and pale but isn't an infectious disease that ravaged half the world. Considering that Cokal's last novel, Mirabilis, concerned a miraculous, perpetually-lactating woman who never experienced nipple-chafe or back problems, I wonder if she has had any practical experience with human bodies at all. Even laying this, and the rest of the ridiculous plot, aside, the language of the novel was so simplistic as to give Potter and Co. a run for their broomsticks, replete with punishable clichés and punishing us with a grown woman's voice that sounds like a 13-year-old diarist bemoaning her True Love Lost. It falls prey to that most cloying of realist traps: the novel about someone Having Sex in Exotic Locales, or Exotic Sex in Repressive and Boring Locales, which sums up just about half of 20th century literature. Cokal does nothing to raise her above the throng.

I recall Cokal instructing us on one of the few days I spent in her class before shuffling my schedule, telling us that writing isn't fun, it's work, and if we're having fun, we're not professionals. I didn't care for the sentiment then, but now I think she was right. Her writing isn't fun, it's work, and working through 350 pages of brain-clawing cliche and the faux-wise ruminations of the lovechild of Miss Hilton and Betty Boop was just too much for this reviewer to stomach.

25 July 2005

A Conversation with Don Nace

The minute I saw the cover of Don Nace's Drawn Out, I knew it was something special.

Usually, I don't judge a book by its cover, but when it's a collection of drawings, the cover is a good starting place. Flipping through it while ignoring various other books that needed to be reviewed, I discovered I was incapable of giving it anything but my fullest attention -- it was too strange, too raw, too enchanting to be dipped in to. I went to the first page, then the second, the third, and continued on to the end. The effect was beyond any description that avoids the purplest of prose, although one person I showed the book to described the effect in a way I very much liked: "It hurts. But it's a necessary hurt."

Drawn Out became a book I carried around with me to show to people. Not just anyone -- the drawings are too emotional, the story they tell too painful, for them to be appropriate for just anybody. But everyone I showed the book to had the same reaction: Wow. And: Ouch.

I had to know more about Don Nace, so I contacted Richard Nash at Soft Skull Press, and he sent me Don's email address. I sent questions, he sent answers, and then we did another round. His answers were so rich and thoughtful that I felt very little need to edit them at all.

For some background, here's part of the description from the book itself: "Set in peculiarly American landscapes, from the empty vastness of the Southwest to the teeming crowds of New York, Drawn Out distills thousands of Nace's sketches into a spare and essential view of God, alcoholics, women, work, and the crushing details of daily life. Along the way, it is by turns brilliantly funny, deeply soulful, and quietly tragic."

To get a sense of Don's drawings, visit his website, www.drawingoftheday.com.

And the bio:
Don Nace's art has appeared in Gordon Lish's The Quarterly and Dan Halpern's Antaeus. Over the years he has worked as a ranch hand, teacher, advertising art director, and factory worker. These days he earns a living painting movie sets.

"Indeed, the especially attentive viewer will be able to spot Nace's work in films ranging from Adrian Lyn's Fatal Attraction (note Glenn Close's phone-side doodlings) to Jonathan Demme's 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate (for which Nace created the unforgettably tortured graffiti covering the boarding-house-room walls of Jeffrey Wright's shell-shocked madman).

He lives in South Nyack, New York.

And now for the conversation...

Despite having been written over thirty years, the various pieces in Drawn Out seem to me to have a coherence of style and story. When putting the book together, were you selecting from a large amount of material, or is the coherence simply a result of the drawings being autobiographical, held together by the flow of your life?

In 1982 Gordon Lish, an editor at Knopf, saw a sketchbook of mine and expressed an interest in publishing it. The sketch books were done with no preconceived notion or purpose other than my own entertainment. If a phrase occurred to me during the conception that seemed related to the drawing I would write it down often having one of the figures speaking. Those were the drawings Gordon liked which was wonderful news to me because it was my most natural style. With a new enthusiasm I began drawing in earnest, concentrating all my efforts towards my sketch books. The ideas for the drawing happened during its creation, which would often result in the first composition being layered over later as part of the search for the right idea and composition. I liked the complexity that occurred with this approach and I did not redraw. Hidden away in many of the drawings you can see figures from ideas that I covered up. This intuitive approach resulted in many failures, but almost all the drawings were approached the same way, and that probably accounts for the similar style.

Some drawings came from different time periods, for instance the drawings about psychoanalysis were from a series drawn while I was undergoing the treatment in New Mexico. That series was published by Antaeus in 1982, shortly after my meeting with Gordon. Of course, the childhood drawings were from my childhood and it is easy to see the similarity between them and the current style, which just have the influence of Kandinsky, Picasso, Jasper Johns, Francis Bacon and the whole bunch thrown in. I drew around 4000 drawings (usually in my car before work and during lunch) before deciding to it was time to put it all together. I eliminated 3000 immediately, then over a long (seeming endless) period of time I hammered, shuffled and strutted the book into shape through many editing attempts. Fortunately, each problem solved or each sequence clarified provided enough of a thrill to keep me going.

How did you happen to meet Gordon Lish?

I met Gordon Lish the first year I was in New York. I was working in an ad agency at 58th and it was a twenty minute subway ride to get there. At first I tried reading the newspaper but soon purchased a little sketch book and drew instead. The jostling of the cars made the drawing challenging and often I had to time the swaying of the car for a quiet spot to make the strokes on the page. It did not matter, I was merely distracting myself from the daily monotony of the ride. This was the first time I started adding captions to the page. A book designer from Knopf, Dorothy Schmiderer, saw the sketch book on my drafting table when she was visiting the owner of the ad agency. After looking through it she asked if she could borrow it to show to an editor she knew at Knopf, Gordon Lish. Soon after I got a call that Gordon wanted to meet with me. That accidental meeting began the long process that ended up with Drawn Out.

At what point did you decide that you wanted to share these drawings with other people?

Right from the beginning, although originally the drawings were treated as separate cartoons, so to speak, and Gordon even published them individually in his literary magazine The Quarterly, but what I really wanted to express was the sensation I got from doing my sketch books. It was the sensation of time. As the sketchbooks progressed from beginning to end the drawings changed in subtle ways so by the end it seemed to me as if a story had occurred, a little bit of life had happened. Of course it was far too tenuous a thread to be recognized by anyone else, so my goal was to bring that thread into focus. I was also interested in the other art forms like music, theater, and dance, which seemed to have no trouble diving into the subtle nuances of human behavior. Popular music was full of endless heartache and pure animal lusts, while plays could grind the last shred of dignity out of man with no attempt at resurrection and yet somehow save a little nobility. So with my mind cluttered with Giacometti and Jackson Pollock I set out to see how much of human nature I could visualize with my artist's vocabulary. I did attempt over the years to think of a storyline that had the classic structures, but that was, quite simply, beyond me. So I just drew as much as I could cram into my work-a-day, raise-a-family world, like some gorilla artist sneaking out at night to create something before scurrying back into hiding. Intuitive as the drawings began, I had planted in my head that I should try to bring it home, make it about something specific and gradually over the years it just happened on its own. All those dramas of life just emerged into little drawings.

When you were creating the drawings, were you thinking about any sort of audience?

I wanted my audience to be everyone. I was hoping that the images would express feelings that could be universal, whether a person was educated in the field of art or not. That it would be understood some of the distortions and ugliness of the lines were to help emote the drama of the situation rather than an indication of an inability to draw.

The intimate nature of the drawings made me very aware of the people who knew me and I was a little nervous about exposing more than they would want to know, but above all I was hoping that the love I have of drawing and quality of the drawings would give some sense of grace and dignity to the struggle of everyday life. So I was hoping to reach everyday people.

Have you felt that you've connected to the everyday people you were hoping would see the drawings, either when they first started appearing in The Quarterly or later? Have there been any reactions that have surprised you?

That is a very interesting and key question and the answer is: I think so. When you asked if I had, "connected with...people", my first response to that phrase was to question my motivation. I was thinking my primary motivation was to see if drawings could arouse the same sense of pathos that exists in music and literature, without becoming a cartoon. After the book was published, as if waking from a dream, I feared that I was merely screaming "look at me". So now I am searching for clues that what I did was legitimate.

I have had many positive reponses, some from very passionate people who believed in the book enough to see that it was published. That passion was so pure and, quite honestly, miraculous, that its intensity for me will probably never be matched again. I cannot begin to express the awe and wonder that these people even exist, let alone came to my aid. I speak primarily of Rob McQuilken, whose love and enthusiasm of birthing books brought me into this world, and Richard Nash, who took the big chance of producing and promoting it. After dealing with those two any response to the book after publication had to pale in comparison. But, like a typical new-born, I am in constant need of nourishment and am extremely grateful for any positive reinforcement.

I have been surprised by who among my acquaintances are silent and who are enthusiastic and helpful in promotion. It was not who I would have thought. In general it has been very good, especially compared to past experiences. The response I got from the first publication of a series of drawings in Antaeus in 1982 was what I call "the sound of crickets": no response at all. I had a couple of reponses from the Quarterly from people that were very positive. Other than that it was pretty quiet out there. So I knew it was quite possible that silence could be the only echo to the book. It is a curious sensation having a long-term project published. During the production I felt as if the book was a bubble rising from the deepest black bottom-most bottom of the ocean, wobbling and squeezing itself up through the water like an amoeba towards the surface. An intact self contained special little bubble heading towards the light. But once it reaches the surface it just pops and joins the rest of the enormous volume of air. That is the position I am in now, having joined the billions of words and hundreds of thousands of drawings in the world.

Do the pieces in Drawn Out have any relationship to your other work?

My other work is kind of all over the place. Once I decided on the book there were very few diversions into other areas but there were a few. For instance, there's a box I made that opens up into the shape of a cross. Box by Don Nace. Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.us On each inside surface of the box I drew a section of my friend's face so that as it closed his portrait was an inside 360-degree surface. I also, in moments that no longer seem rational, decided to copy Master paintings and paint in front my response. I painted DeKooning's woman and superimposed my son into her stormy swirls of paint. The meaning being, it takes that much energy to raise a child. I painted Goya's "Saturn Devouring His Children" and painted a realistic portrait of myself holding my young son in front of it. The title was "The Saturns Devouring Their Children" -- the meaning being that as benevolent as I appeared compared to the Goya, my lifestyle was destroying the very planet my son needed to thrive, so I was indeed a saturn who was devouring his child. I am a copier. I copied William Blake's "The Red Dragon" for the movie Red Dragon and I have copied other paintings for other movies. The drawings are the real me, however, until it gets to be time to explore other things.

How did the site www.drawingoftheday.com come about?

For awhile it seemed that everyone was asking if I had a web site and a few dedicated believers were always prompting me to get one to promote and advertise the book. The problem I had was that most of the artists' web sites I had visited were static and I only visited them once. It made no sense to me to have to promote a web site that would then promote the book when I could just promote the book. I did not believe that in the great sea of web addresses that a web site would attract any more attention than I as a person would. At the same time, work on the book was winding down and I was thinking about what I should do next. Putting the book together was so time consuming that I had stopped drawing, for years actually, so I was considering whether to get back into the routine of drawing daily again. I was a little reluctant to begin facing the empty page once more, but I was doing a little doodling here and there. It occurred to me that if I posted my daily attempts on the web site then the site would not be static but ever changing, always new. That interested me, because as I said before what I loved about the sketchbooks were the changes that took place over time, how the mind would be interested in certain grays for awhile then yearn for deep blacks and then for free easy lines. Different each day and occasionally, quite by surprise, an undeniably good drawing would pop out. For the first time, thanks to the internet, the audience can check in on the artistic experience in the same real time. Typically, the artist works up ideas in a sketch book then transfers a few ideas to a major piece which often goes through many changes in process. Then the major works are edited down further and put in a show, completely scrubbed clean of the creative impulses that drove the artist to make it all in the first place. Now it is possible for the artist to open his studio to his audience during the creation with surprise or disappointment available to all at the time it happens. I find that fascinating.

Of course the joke is that I do not even have a studio and I do the drawings during lunch at work. But that is the way I did the book, so I carry on. The first six months were rough. It was a little unnerving having my daily progress monitored, especially since there were many daily strips, from Gary Larsen to Doonesbury, that were brilliant each day and here I was with some really pathetic sketches making that unfortunate comparison. I had to keep reminding myself that the purpose of the site was exploration, not entertainment. Each day did not have to be a joke.

In the beginning I cracked. If a drawing was bad I put in one left over from the book. When the site was archived I was shocked at how many empty days there were and I went back and plugged them with old drawings. I feel pretty bad about that; I wasn't being honest to the experience, so I forced myself to stop, and for the last six months I have been true to the site. If I don't have a drawing the site says "sorry no drawing today". I feel pretty comfortable now after this first year. I am in old familiar territory, accepting the disappointments, and occasionally a drawing will appear that "pleases me no end," as my Mother used to say. Actually, now that I have a body of work, it gives me a cozy feeling even though each day has it own trauma. So the plan is just to keep going. Monitor my slow march into the future.

What's next for you?

Right now, there are only minor changes in my routine. I will continue to the daily web site but I have no plans for another book thirty years in the making. I do not know what I want my drawings to do. As yet, I have not regained that real urge to draw that I used to have, but I am extremely happy at the occasional surprises that come out.

The book and the web site did get me a job as the artist for the lead character in Julie Taymor's new movie. It is a musical based on Beatle's songs. Julie Taymor directed the Broadway production of Lion King, and she also designed all the puppets and costumes. I am very excited and nervous because it is the first time in my professional career that my own drawings will be a major part of a movie. The first time I will be so visible to people I admire.

24 July 2005

Questions and Answers

Some good questions have been asked in the comments section to my previous post about Hal Hartley's new film, and so I thought it might be helpful to foreground that discussion a bit by giving it its own post.

Toward the end of the post about The Girl from Monday I wrote, "It's sad to see once-interesting artists decide that they have messages to communicate to the world," which the commenter pointed to and said,
That's a strange statement. It could be argued that ALL artists feel they have messages to communicate to the world, and I can't see that as a bad thing. It seems that what you object to is the lack of sophistication in these particular messages, or their lack of relevance to you, not their existence.
I then suggested it was a matter of approach, the difference between asking questions and giving answers, which elicited the question, "So no one has any answers to offer, even provisionally?" That seems a vital and important question to me, and it's made me try to think more specifically about why I so vehemently dislike what I tend to see as a pedantic use of fictional narratives (movies, short stories, novels, plays).

I'll start with what will, I'm sure, sound like an irrelevant semantic point: There is a difference, I think, between artists who "decide that they have messages to communicate to the world" and artists who "feel that they have messages to communicate to the world". It's probably true that everyone who creates things and makes them public feels they have something to communicate; otherwise, why bother? But to decide that you have something to communicate seems to me to be different, because a decision is more specific than a feeling, and it's the specificity -- the idea that you have a handle on Truth and now must go forth and communicate it -- that I dislike in narrative. A decision smacks of certainty; a feeling suggests exploration. It's the difference between something that makes you say, "Boy, that was preachy," rather than, "Wow, that's got me thinking..."

Maybe it has less to do with the artist's own ideas than it does with how the ideas within the work are shaped and expressed. When other elements within the work are as strong, or stronger than, the "message" being conveyed, it gives us something else to latch onto. Humor, for instance, can often make the message-bearing elements of a pedantic work more bearable. A richness of character development helps. Complexity of plot. Vivid imagery and language. The closest comparison I can think of to The Girl from Monday is Code 46, a movie that also projects a future dystopia from current trends, but which offers the viewer far more to think about, because its entire conception can't be summed up in a simple good/bad message. (There are plenty of better movies out there, but I'm trying to keep the comparison close.)

I do think people have answers to offer -- provisionally -- but I doubt that fictional narrative is the best way to offer them, and even if someone is determined that that is the best way, then they need to aim for complexity rather than simplicity. A simple message conveyed in a simple way is fine for greeting cards and political speeches, but such an approach weakens narrative fictions, which work best when the audience is given a variety of elements to consider and enjoy.

Terry Teachout wrote an essay about political theatre recently, and though I disagree with about half of it, I do think he's onto something, and I particularly liked when he quoted John Sayles:
Asked by an interviewer why so few American directors make political movies, Sayles replied, "I think more than being political or not political, it's often the problem of being complex: The characters aren't heroic. Sometimes they do things you don't like, even if you may like them, and it's hard to know exactly who the good guys and bad guys are, because everybody is a little bit compromised."
Artists who decide they have a message to convey usually dispense with complexity, because complexity might insert noise in the message. (Sayles himself fell victim to this, I thought, with Silver City.) Yet complexity is one of the great strengths of narrative -- the ability to portray multiple characters and settings, to show human beings in conflict and harmony with each other, to explore time and emotion, to experiment with the effects of point of view. Look at Dostoyevsky, a writer who seemed to have very clear ideas about what sorts of messages he wanted to convey to his readers, but whose fiction is so complex, the characters so rich and varied in their beliefs and actions, that any polemical purpose usually gets destroyed.

In the theatre, Caryl Churchill is usually an excellent example of a writer with strong political and social convictions explored in her plays without those convictions seeming to overwhelm the audience with the playwright's answers to her own questions. (I wrote not too long ago about her play A Number. Top Girls is a clearer example: a play that is very much about feminism and women's place in society and history.)

It may be that I'm contradicting myself, because it's true what I object to is "the lack of sophistication in these particular messages ... not their existence." Or maybe not. If I get semantic again, I can object to the existence of messages: the word message suggests a statement, and I wonder just how sophisticated and complex such a thing can be. I'm suspicious of anything that could be said to have a political or social message rather than political or social subject matter. When an artist who has previously created interesting work decides that they have a message to convey, then they are squeezing their subject matter into a mold so that it will get that message out, and anything that distracts from the message is kept away. They have decided on an answer, and the answer is the message, with every other element of the work becoming subservient to the delivery of the answer. I think that's an impoverishing approach to creative work. It flatters an audience that agrees with the message and gives nothing to an audience that doesn't. At best, such a strategy is boring; at worst, dishonest and manipulative.

On the other hand, I'm wary of making any absolutist statements about art, and I'm moving dangerously toward that territory here. Geniuses can prove generalities wrong, and each film, play, novel, and story should be looked at for its own merits and oddities, not dismissed simply because it fits a template some crackpot critic came up with. Maybe I should try to crack fewer pots...

23 July 2005

The Boar by Joe R. Lansdale

Below is the latest in a continuing series of guest reviews. Our reviewer this time is Teresa Tunaley, who spends most of her waking hours working as a freelance Art/Editorial Director for LBF Books. Living as she does on an idyllic tropical island in the Canaries, Teresa is the first -- but not last -- of the guest reviewers to be from outside the United States.

The Boar by Joe R. Lansdale
reviewed by Teresa Tunaley

In The Boar, award-winning author Joe Lansdale displays once again his excellence for storytelling. In the 121 pages of this short novel, Lansdale cleverly combines both humour and horror into a heartwarming story of tragedy, love and despair.

The reader is taken on an adventure to Texas during the Great Depression of the '30s as we follow in the footsteps of fifteen-year-old Richard Dale and his encounter with a giant boar, better known to all the locals as 'Satan'.

Lansdale creates a unique world that draws on folklore for its inspiration. For me, the story was original, not of my time, my era. I was captured from the first three opening paragraphs, and so intrigued that I then went on to read this book in less than 4 hours.

This is a well-written, engaging story, and the vividly-realized characters and relationships make it even more pleasing. These are people we could all empathize with. Lansdale describes his characters, their surroundings, dress, and mannerisms so skilfully that your mind may easily imagine the accrued grime on those sweat-stained hats and each thorny bramble in the thick undergrowth.

The dialogue flows at a wonderful pace with each page, written in a captivating style that was not complicated, neither too slow, nor too fast. Lansdale writes with such logical detail, yet the references he makes remain quite reassuringly simple.

Two paragraphs particularly stood out for me. In them, Lansdale describes Old Uncle Pharaoh, who is supposedly one hundred and fifty years old:
"Howdy, Uncle Pharoah."

He cocked his head to my direction. "Howdy yourself, little white boy." He smiled at me. There wasn't a tooth in his head, just withered gums that reminded me of a dog-chewed leather.

If Uncle Pharoah wasn't that old, he had to be awful dadburned close. I'd never seen anyone that looked as old as he did. Even some of the pictures of dried up dead folks I'd seen, mummies they were called, didn't look as old as Uncle Pharoah. He was shiny bald, toothless, and his eyes were an odd gray color, like maybe they'd been poked with pins to let the brown run out. His skin was more wrinkled than a raisin and it looked tough enough to have come off an old mule collar. His arms were knotty looking and his wrecked legs looked as twisted as bois d'ark limbs.
I couldn't find a negative word to say about this book, and I look forward to reading more of Lansdale's work.

The Boar is illustrated by Alex McVey. Over the years, I have had the opportunity to see many of McVey's creations, and here, once again, his wonderful skills help bring Lansdale's words to life.

The Girl from Monday

Why do good filmmakers go bad? In the case of Hal Hartley, it may be the effect of trying to apply a limited style to a range of subjects -- what seemed amusing and absurd in Hartley's films through Henry Fool has, in the more expansive settings and more serious attention to philosophies and "issues" of The Book of Life, No Such Thing, and The Girl from Monday, turned to awkward sentimentality, sophomoric self-righteousness, and mannered tedium.

The Girl from Monday seems like the work of a film-school student who's seen a bunch of Hal Hartley movies: it's got the same affectless performances, off-kilter photography, and rhythmic editing, but the tone is more plodding, and what was once so prevalent in Hartley's best films -- surreal and absurd moments interspersed with naked realism -- has become a rarity. Hartley's early films worked so well because they applied what seemed to be a self-consciously Meaningful style of acting, filming, and editing onto stories that were ephemeral and cliche -- reduced to its plot, for instance, Trust is a teen movie (the packaging of the old videotape I have makes it look like a relative of Pretty in Pink) complete with an impossible-but-right relationship and lots of trouble with parents. Onto that template, Hartley added sharply strange dialogue, flat performances, and a plethora of odd details. His early movies were not parodies, but were, instead, revitalizations of formulae that had, through being churned into cliche, lost whatever power they once had to communicate. Through the wrenching effect of putting square pegs in round holes, Hartley created films that were fresh, funny, and often surprisingly moving.

He could have done something similar to science fiction with The Girl from Monday, but instead Hartley chose to take his material seriously, and instead of invigorating the cliches, he drowned in them. The story of a future world where sex is literally commodified and nothing that isn't profitable is worthwhile is the sort of thing that people who haven't encountered much science fiction would think is new and profound. Hartley fans could be excused for thinking he would recognize the familiarity of this conceit and have fun playing with it. Alas, no. He thinks he's offering a Serious Vision Of A Disturbing Future. He thinks he's making a Social Comment. He thinks he can Save Us.

We should have known. After all, in The Book of Life, Hartley went looking for God, and tried to redeem the world with digital video. The Girl from Monday is also shot on digital, and with the same low-frame-count impressionistic swirls that made The Book of Life difficult to watch. After starting out as a sort of suburban Gogol-lite, Hartley has become as insufferable as Tolstoy in his last days.

It's sad to see once-interesting artists decide that they have messages to communicate to the world. Hartley's early work had lots to say about the hollowness of contemporary life, the desires cramped by middle-class ennui and alienation, the challenges of being alive. The richness of meaning came through playing around and refusing to tie up any single, over-riding meaning, allowing the viewer to discover the implications between the scenes. Hartley has lost that, because now he wants to make up our minds for us. Once upon a time, he thought his audience was intelligent. Now he just thinks it's there to be enlightened.

22 July 2005

Three Paragraphs

As I noted in the last post, I've been reading Alejo Carpentier's novel Siglo de las luces ("age of enlightenment"), translated into English by John Sturrock as Explosion in a Cathedral, and it's excited me more than anything I've read at least since Tainaron by Leena Krohn. I can't resist sharing a few paragraphs from a seven-page scene that uses eloquent description of nature to both indicate character development and create symbolic resonance. Excerpted from the narrative, neither of those particular qualities will be apparent, but perhaps you can appreciate the rhythm of the language* and the vivid imagery:
Going from surprise to surprise, Esteban discovered a plurality of beaches, where the sea, three centuries after the Discovery, was beginning to deposit its first pieces of polished glass -- glass invented in Europe and strange to America; glass from bottles, from flasks, from demijohns, in shapes hitherto unknown on the New Continent; green glass, with opacities and bubbles; delicate glass, destined for embryonic cathedrals, whose hagiography had been effaced by the water; glass fallen from ships or saved from shipwrecks, polished by the waves with the skill of a turner or a goldsmith till the light was restored to its extenuated colours, and cast up as a mysterious novelty on this ocean shore.


Carried into a world of symbiosis, standing up to his neck in pools whose water was kept perpetually foaming by cascading waves, and was broken, torn, shattered, by the hungry bite of jagged rocks, Esteban marvelled to realize how the language of these islands had made use of agglutination, verbal amalgams and metaphors to convey the formal ambiguity of things which participated in several essences at once. Just as certain trees were called "acacia-bracelets", "pineapple-porcelain", "wood-rib", "ten o'clock broom", "cousin clover", "pitcher-pine-kernel", "tisane-cloud", and "iguana-stick", many marine creatures had received names which established verbal equivocations in order to describe them accurately. Thus a fantastic bestiary had arisen of dog-fish, oxen-fish, tiger-fish, snorers, blowers, flying fish; of striped, tattooed and tawny fish, fish with their mouths on top of their heads, or their gills in the middle of their stomachs; white-bellies, swordfish and mackerel; a fish which bit off testicles -- cases had been known -- another that was herbivorous; the red-speckled sand-eel; a fish which became poisonous after eating manchineel apples -- not forgetting the vieja-fish, the captain-fish, with its gleaming throat of golden scales; or the woman-fish -- the mysterious and elusive manatees, glimpsed in the mouths of rivers where the salt water mingled with the fresh, with their feminine profiles and their siren's breasts, playing joyful nuptial pranks on one another in their watery meadows.


Sometimes a great silence foreshadowing an Event would fall over the water, and then some enormous, belated, obsolete fish would appear, a fish from another epoch, its face placed at the extreme end of its massive body, living in a perpetual fear at its own slowness, its hide covered with vegetation and parasites like an uncareened hull. The huge back emerged amidst a swirl of remoras, with the solemnity of a raised galleon, as this patriarch of the depths, this Leviathan, ejecting sea-foam, emerged onto the light of day, for what might perhaps be only the second time since the astrolabe was brough into these seas. The monster opened its pachyderm's eyes, and, discovering a battered sardine-boat sailing nearby, submerged once more, anxious and afraid, down towards the solitude of the depths, to await some other century before it returned again to a world full of perils.

(pp. 176-179)
*I don't have a copy of the original Spanish text, so I can't say how close the translation is. The text as an English text is a marvel, and John Sturrock deserves accolades for that at the very least.

21 July 2005

Currently Reading (and reading and reading)

Sorry things have been slow around here since ReaderCon, but various forces have drawn me away. There are quite a few things lined up for the coming week or two, however, including three new interviews and at least one more guest review. I haven't had much of a brain for actual blog posts, but managed to update the sidebar for the first time since February, adding a few things and, most importantly, getting rid of dead links.

Though I haven't been writing here much, I have been reading an awful lot, some of it for classes I'm taking, some for reviews and essays I've promised to various and sundry places. I thought I'd list a few here, for anybody who's curious:

Anima by M. John Harrison -- this is a one-volume British edition of two books I have read previously, The Course of the Heart and Signs of Life. I think they're both extraordinary, difficult, rewarding books, and putting them together makes quite a lot of sense. I've been working on a review of them for SF Site for a week now and have managed to write all of two paragraphs. Reviews usually take a few days to write, not weeks, but I've always found writing about Harrison's books tremendously difficult.

Natives and Exotics by Jane Alison -- I'm going to review this, but I don't know where yet. (Maybe here. We'll see.) I enjoyed the book quite a bit, though more intellectually than emotionally -- it's an elegant, sometimes disturbing, comparison of human and botanical movement through history, with storylines that cross through a few hundred years and over most of the Earth. It reminded me a lot of some of Jim Crace's books in the spare specificity of the language and the schematic structure of the narrative(s). I don't think "schematic" is a negative term, though -- at least not when the schema is handled as well as is is here -- but it certainly makes for a different sort of novel than one that is primarily about character motivations. It reminded me of Clare Dudman's One Day the Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead, and I think it might have the same potential to appeal to science fiction readers as Dudman's, because it's even more focused than One Day the Ice on the flow of ideas through history, the synergies and serendipities of science, the convergences of landscape and culture.

Mariners, Renegades & Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In by C.L.R. James -- just read this for a class, as well as James's classic The Black Jacobins (which I'd read parts of before, but not all). James is a fascinating writer, and I enjoyed Mariners even as I thought it was at times frustrating and even infuriating. It's certainly a unique book, one which moves from an interpretation of Moby Dick that looks at Ahab as a totalitarian figure and wonders why the crew didn't revolt, to ending with James explaining that he's writing the book from detention on Ellis Island, about to be deported, and how that experience has affected his reading of Melville and solidified his interpretation -- while also being, he thinks, evidence for why he should be allowed to become a U.S. citizen.

Explosion in a Cathedral by Alejo Carpentier -- a phenomenal novel so far (I'm about halfway through), with rich, imagistic prose along with an exciting plot involving both the French and Haitian revolutions. This is a satisfying novel. (Reserving the right to completely disagree with myself if I hate the second half.)

Adaptations: 35 Great Stories That Have Inspired Great Films edited by Stephanie Harrison -- I've been dipping into this marvelous anthology, one that's been sitting around waiting to be read for quite some time. I think I was intimidated by its size -- it's a thick book -- but I have now read all of the introductions to the various sections, and will soon begin reading the stories themselves. I've seen other collections of stories-that-became-films, but this is by far the largest, and it's particularly interesting, because there are various thematic sections devoted to genres and styles and trends, with introductions to each that lay out some of the history of how each story found its way -- sometimes in a nearly unrecognizable adaptation -- to the screen. For anyone who loves film and short stories, this book is a treasure.

There are also some books I'm not at liberty to tell you about, because they're nominees for the next LitBlog Co-Op selection, including one I nominated. I haven't begun reading them yet, but they look to be astonishing, which could be problematic for me in the end, because of course I want the book I nominated to be loved by everybody, but there's a chance I might love one of the other books more. Not a bad problem to have, though.

Among books I look forward to reading soon (though "soon" is a relative term):I intend to get to them all, but the road to hell and I are quite familiar with each other by now...

20 July 2005

Best LitBlog Article EVER

Well, okay, so I'm giving in to my hyperbolic dark side in the title of this post, attempting to hide the fact that all I want to do is point you elsewhere, to Scott Esposito's article at Rain Taxi Online about literary weblogs. I'm further trying to hide the fact that I particularly like it not just for its fine writing, its judicial taste, its elegant structure, but because it mentions this site that you're reading right now.

By the way, the print version of Rain Taxi is a marvel, but one I had not paid enough attention to until somebody told me that people like Alan DeNiro, Stepan Chapman, Kristin Livdahl, Rudi Dornemann, and Scott himself, among many others, write reviews for it (and yes, I just started writing for them, but I subscribed before that happened, once I discovered who their reviewers are). With Rain Taxi, BookForum, and a good selection of litblogs, you're likely to find out about a lot of books you wouldn't discover otherwise.

19 July 2005

Settling Accounts: Drive to the East

Below is the next in an ongoing series of guest reviews of upcoming or recent books.

Settling Accounts: Drive to the East by Harry Turtledove
reviewed by Gerard Marzilli

Settling Accounts: Drive to the East is the second volume in Harry Turtledove's World War II quadrilogy set in an alternate universe in which the South won the Civil War. The book is an incredibly fast paced yarn that will leave readers gasping for breath -- and incensed because they will have to wait an entire year for the next installment.

Although Drive to the East is only the second volume of the Settling Accounts series, Turtledove has set up the characters and situations in several other works, including the 1997 novel How Few Remain and the Great War and American Empire series. For this reason, readers who are unfamiliar with the series should not begin with Drive to the East.

That being said, the book is a chilling and realistic jaunt through an alternate 1940s America containing death camps, daily suicide bombings, and a totalitarian government that rules over the states south of the Mason-Dixon Line. The fascist Confederate States of America (the "C.S.A.") is waging a war of revenge upon the U.S.A. in retaliation for the crushing defeat it suffered in the Great War. Although the outcome of the war remains in the balance, United States production capacity and weight of numbers are beginning to take a toll on the forces of the Confederate States.

Turtledove typically spends the first hundred pages of a novel reviewing and repeating the events of his previous novel. Many consider this to be his hallmark flaw. Thankfully, in this book, he keeps repetition to a minimum, allowing readers just enough information to recall what happened in the last volume. Also, unlike the other books in this series, Turtledove keeps to a minimum the civilian point-of-view characters, thus allowing the author to focus on the meat of the story - the war itself. This leaves room for plenty of exciting and harrowing battle sequences.

One flaw in the book is that for readers familiar with the history of the real World War II, the events may be somewhat predictable. Turtledove's model of the U.S.A./C.S.A conflict is lifted directly from the real life events of the Eastern Front battles between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. However, Turtledove is not primarily concerned with the events of the conflict between nations, but rather their effect on the individuals involved. From infantry men and tank drivers to sailors at sea, to the politicians behind the lines, Turtledove compels his readers care about all of his characters so much that we mourn their occasional loss and are kept biting our nails when some of their stories are left up in the air at the end of the novel.

Turtledove also appears to have another intent by transposing European history onto North America's: to show that Europe's horrors could very easily have been -- and may yet be -- our own.

16 July 2005


I suspect this is tired desperation on my part, but here are some obligatory Harry Potter links:
"18 Fantasy Authors to Read Instead of J.K. Rowling" by Ed Champion

"18 More Fantasy Authors to Read Instead of J.K. Rowling" by Gwenda Bond

"Adults Who Read Harry Potter: Yea or Nay?" by Scott Esposito
Alright, that's enough.

I actually don't have anything against the Harry Potter books, as long as they're not touted as the greatest things to ever be printed. I've read the first four, and found the first three of those quite entertaining, particularly the third. The fourth I thought was tedious, but I know 12-year-olds who were riveted. I'll get to the fifth one of these days.

It's fun to see kids excited by books, to see them enchanted by stories and characters. There's something unsavory about scoffing at it all and being a Great Big Grump saying, "Well, child, one of these days you'll realize how much of your life you have wasted on those silly things when you could have been reading a real writer, like Harold Bloom."

Adults are a different story. Nothing wrong with adults reading books aimed at kids (just this week I read Thirsty by M.T. Anderson, which Kelly Link had kindly sent me a while ago, and which is a remarkable book in many ways, with quite a lot more bite than Harry Potter [ugh, sorry]), but I have been frustrated by some friends of mine who've read the Potter books avidly and have then gone on to associate all fantasy novels with kidlit. I gave one a copy of Jeff VanderMeer's Secret Life, because I thought she'd appreciate the variety of stories, the language, the playfulness with form, the seriousness of intent -- and her response was to think the book was for her 13-year-old son. Her loss.

There have been times when I've been asked by people what their kids might like if they like Harry Potter, and the question usually puts me at a loss, because I don't know much about children's literature, and so end up saying things like, "Well, there's always Dante," and getting horrified looks. So here are a few links gathered by Googling the phrase "If you like Harry Potter":
Links to various librarians' lists of books for kids who like Harry Potter

Salt Lake County Library list

Waterboro Public Library list

Neutral Bay Public School list
I'd love to know what people would recommend as the very next book a child or teen should read after they've read all the Harry Potters (adults should just go to Ed and Gwenda's lists). Put ideas in the comments below and in a few days I'll make a list of them all and put it up as a post. (I can just imagine what some people will suggest: Bleak House ... 120 Days of Sodom ... The German Ideology...)

13 July 2005

Content with Form

Now and then an irresolvable discussion of how we approach works of art can be fun, and even occasionally enlightening. For instance, Mark Kaplan's discussion of aestheticism at Charlotte Street:
Whether it is Kafka (Kafka speaks of books that break open the frozen substance inside us) or any other of the authors who really interest me, there is in these writers a content which burns a hole in the given social substance, which is indifferent to the Symbolic Order in which the writer lives, and which, taken seriously, is incompatible with a life lived pragmatically within that order. And the view of literature as no more than a painless supplement to such a life is anathema to such texts.

I have strayed a bit... the point is to suggest that the 'aesthetic' is often a denial of content, a defusing of its radicalism; the content is placed in parentheses. And yet the critics by insisting on the aesthetic (defined as the suspension of content) have turned things on their head. For it is almost always the case that the form of the work -- the innovations in form -- have resulted from a rigorous effort on the part of the artist to work-through some specific content, to think through the formal consequences of a certain content.
Those two paragraphs are full of implications, as is the entire post (be sure to read the summary of John Berger's exploration of a painting by Franz Hals), but what I kept thinking about was the relationship of the audience to the artifact, and the near impossibility of separating form and content, even in works where one or the other doesn't seem to be particularly skilled. Both terms are critical abstractions, perhaps even fictions. Certainly, at the most obvious level, a painting is a bunch of paints adhering to a canvas, a novel is a bunch of words put onto pages, etc., though I'm not sure if proclaiming that is insightful or an example of willfully missing the point. Certainly, too, there are works (some music, some abstract art) where anything other than an aesthetic approach goes out on a thin limb of imagining.

These seem more to be problems for academics and critics than for sane people, but though the discussion may not be particularly valuable for creators or appreciators of writing, art, music, dance, etc., it's important for people who write about such things -- those of us who are the vultures of the culture industry -- to think about, because it affects how those works are portrayed in reviews and articles about them. Such portrayals can have, at least in the aggregate, an effect on how they are portrayed in the wider culture. I've been thinking about it since my post on J.M. Coetzee and allegorical readings, which was an attempt to think about how literal readings of texts can be a useful starting place before getting everything jumbled with other ways of reading. Such an approach, though, is not going to be satisfying with every type of writer -- it works with Coetzee because the literal is so complex, and so much meaning can be drawn purely from dealing with the surface of the novels. To claim that because it is such a productive way of reading Coetzee that it should be the only one, though, is to give in to self-imposed intellectual impoverishment, and to minimize what great writers can accomplish. To claim that because it works with Coetzee it will work with everyone would be dangerous, too, because there are plenty of excellent writers who provide clear surfaces that are not complex, and the interest lies elsewhere (a form that seeks to stay out of the way of content).

All of this seems clangingly obvious, and it may be just that, but I'm a slow learner at times, and am trying to move beyond that form/content dichotomy and toward a way of thinking about works of art that doesn't lose sight of the pleasures, stimulations, and challenges of the art by cutting it in half. What stops us from aestheticizing and historicizing, from examining both the work and the culture it's part of, both the words-as-artifacts and the work as the production of a particular person? Do critics accept things as mutually exclusive that normal people who encounter the work do not? Is all of this just empty, idle blather? Is this question rhetorical? Will there be a test?

11 July 2005

Blogger's Revenge: Return of the Linkdump

Since I'm trying to catch up with life and should be doing all sorts of things other than being online, here are a few links, all vegetarian-approved, to keep you busy for a couple minutes:

10 July 2005

Readercon: Day 3

Today was the end of Readercon, and everyone looked a bit dazed and even bedraggled, though happy. Corrections to my earlier posts have already begun to appear in the comments -- please feel free to correct anything you think I mistyped, misperceived, or missed. (Thanks to Kathryn Cramer for doing so already.)

First, the Rhysling Awards have been posted and the winners announced to all the world, not just Readercon attendees. Congratulations all around.

Now to today: I arrived in the morning to see Greer Gilman read from the third story in her series begun with "Jack Daw's Pack" and the World Fantasy Award-winning "A Crowd of Bone". I'd heard Greer read other pieces of the story last year, and it's as vivid and unique an artifact of language as the other two, so I wasn't about to miss another sneak-peak. Her writing can seem, on the page, almost opaque, but when she reads it doesn't feel the least bit difficult or obscure to me. I told her this, and she said the stories really should be read aloud, they're designed that way. There were only a few of us at the reading, but it was 10am on a Sunday morning, and it didn't really matter, because it was an appreciative group, and engagement matters more than numbers. ("The average literacy in that room," Greer said to me, "was thrillingly high." Indeed. But that's been my experience of the whole convention, and one of the things that has made it so much fun.)

I dashed from the reading to the only panel I went to today: "Experiencing Sense of Wonder for College Credit: Teaching SF in the Classroom", where the panelists were: Fred Lerner (moderator), Samuel Delany, Theodora Goss, Leigh Grossman, and Suzy McKee Charnas. The participants gave their backgrounds first -- all teach or have taught science fiction and/or fantasy classes at universities, though in various ways and forms. Things got off to a lively start when Samuel Delany said he's against teaching a historical overview of science fiction, that such an overview is impossible and a waste of time, and that he's also against trying to define "science fiction" (he explained the reasons for the latter briefly, but I'd recommend reading his comments on defining SF and the various histories of SF in Silent Interviews, because this idea wasn't really picked up and discussed much during the panel.)

Suzy McKee Charnas said she always starts with a historical overview of SF, because most students' notions of what science fiction and fantasy are comes from movies. She said she starts with Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man, because it's old, but full of energy and invention, which many students don't think old things can have. Delany replied that he often does exactly the same thing, and usually starts with Bester, too, but he just doesn't call it history.

Leigh Grossman said he often starts a course with definitions provided by students answering the question "What is science fiction?" or "What is fantasy?" (he teaches separate courses on each). The responses can be illuminating and good ways to begin discussion, and without doing it the students would become frustrated because so much of what they encounter in his courses defies their expectations of what SF is and does. He said he draws across all majors, even though it's an upper-level English course with 6,000+ pages of reading per semester and 150 pages of writing (although summer class participants can get out of one paper if they go to an SF convention).

Theodora Goss said that her university is fairly conservative, and that she teaches mostly 19th century fantasy literature, because, alas, that's what easiest to convince the administrators is worthwhile for study.

There followed a lot of discussion of the lack of respect that SF gets from the academy, though most of the panelists said they've experienced more hostility from creative writing teachers and programs than from academic ones. Suzy McKee Charnas suggested the condemnatory attitude derives from ignorance of the SF field, and therefore a feeling that it's impossible to assess student work related to SF. Theodora Goss said that people in academic programs are looking for new territory to explore, since so much has been written about so many of the major literary figures. Leigh Grossman said that even though his classes aren't exactly creative writing classes, he gets refugees from other creative writing classes where the instructors pretended The Iowa Review is the only respectable market for stories.

Samuel Delany said he uses a series of single-author modules in courses, rather than a historical overview, with eight modules per semester. By using a couple of novels and some short stories by one writer, students get to see what specific writers do, rather than becoming confused by all the paradoxes and conflicts in the history of SF.

Leigh Grossman said he likes to destroy the Norton Anthology view of writing as "this writer followed that one" by talking about how writers work, their worries about money and contracts, their friendships and animosities across generations. This can illuminate and humanize past writers, writers who we think of as godlike, but who were probably just trying to figure out how to pay the rent or get an audience.

Theodora Goss said she tends to teach thematically, for instance with the theme of "the double", to show how writers take central ideas and play with them, for instance "Beauty and the Beast" as seen through Angela Carter's "The Tiger's Bride".

Leigh Grossman said he often has to spend the first day scaring away people who signed up for the course because it said "science fiction" and so they assumed it would be an easy A. Theodora Goss said that happens to her, too, but there are also plenty of students who already are interested in fantasy and science fiction, truly want to be there, and are passionate about the work -- something a bit rarer in a class on Emerson.

Samuel Delany said that bringing science fiction into a creative writing class is no more difficult than bringing people of diverse backgrounds, nationalities, ethnicities, etc. At the beginning, he says that all genres of writing are welcome and taken seriously. After all, eventually most writers want to try their hand at SF, as did Hawthorne, Poe, and Twain. It's part of the American traiditon. On the subject of preconceptions, he said he asks students who haven't read SF to list its themes (the students who have read SF are told to be quiet). These prejudicial myths -- utopias, space battles, etc. -- are written on the board, and inevitably turn out to be a fairly accurate description of a lot of SF. He said that he then bans any talk about these subjects in general, forcing the students to focus on the actual texts without their preconceptions.

Someone made a comment about many administrators saying students won't read more than a few pages for any class, and Delany pounced on this, proclaiming the idea of "teachability" as something that has made classes of all sorts meaningless and boring. If teachers get too caught up in trying to convert people to reading, science fiction, etc., this tends to control the canon in the humanities, and not in a good way. He said he prefers teaching graduate seminars for this reason.

From the audience, John Crowley asked what some of the modules Delany uses are, and he said Alfred Bester (the famous works, plus things like "Hell is Forever"), Theodore Sturgeon, Thomas Disch, Joanna Russ, Barry Malzberg, and he's even putting together a John Crowley module. He went on to say that he avoids writers that the students would encounter if they develop any sort of interest in SF -- no need for Isaac Asimov, for instance -- and that one of the best things teachers can do is introduce students to superb writers they might not otherwise encounter. He said his selection is based entirely on his own conflicting ideas of "quality", and that he lays these ideas out for the students to discuss and argue about.

Suzy McKee Charnas said one of the reasons she likes teaching SF is that she likes to talk about the edges of ideas, the edges of culture, and that SF is very good at doing that.

Theodora Goss said that SF of various sorts often investigates and represents things realism doesn't -- for instance, 19th century fantasy could often be seen as a discussion of the fallout from Darwin's ideas, with things like Dracula raising questions about the relationship between humans and animals.

And then time ran out.

I was going to go to another panel, but got caught up talking with a few people, because rumors that publisher Byron Preiss had just died in a car accident were, sadly, confirmed.

At one o'clock, though, I went to hear Samuel Delany read an assessment of the tenth volume of The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon, an essay that has just come out in The New York Review of Science Fiction. If I'd been thinking well, I would have picked up a copy of the new NYRSF, but the dealer's room closed after Delany's reading. I'm just going to have to finally break down and subscribe, because it's an excellent, insightful essay. In it, Delany compares Sturgeon to Chekhov, and an audience member afterward asked him to elaborate on the comparison. He said there is a similarly large range of characters in Sturgeon's work as in Chekhov's, though Sturgeon tends to focus more on the working class, while Chekhov had peasants and aristocrats (because that's what existed at that time). Both writers have a strong connection to landscape in their stories, and, a real humanity to their perspectives. Someone asked him what his favorite Sturgeon story is, and he said that he couldn't answer that any more than his favorite Chekhov story, because he likes their sensibilities, and, as with any writer who is of great quality, their work as a whole creates a sensibility that he likes being immersed in.

After that, I went to hear Kelly Link read part of "Magic for Beginners", the title story of her new collection, and then Dora Goss read a magnificent story that will be appearing on Strange Horizons soon, as well as some poems.

And so ended Readercon. If I find more reports from the convention, I'll post links to them. Please keep corrections, emendations, different interpretations, etc. coming in the comments sections. If you're more visually oriented, check out Kathryn Cramer's photos from the convention. She even got me, though the camera exploded immediately after. (That's Sonya Taaffe behind me, by the way. I was walking toward Kathryn to introduce her to Sonya, because David Hartwell had asked to meet Sonya, and Sonya didn't know either of the Hartwell-Cramer duo of fabulousity.)

On my way out of the convention, I picked up a registration form for next year, because it announced the guests of honor for 2006: James Morrow and China Mieville.