30 October 2006

ManBug Week Begins

Things are likely to be slow here this week, as I will be the ringleader of ManBug Week at the LitBlog Co-op. There should be lots of provocative discussion of literature, sex, and entomology...

28 October 2006

Kenya

And now for some big news, or at least something that counts as big news around here: I'm going to a writing workshop/conference in Kenya from December 14-28. It's run by the Summer Literary Seminars program, about which I've heard good things from a friend who went to their St. Petersburg program. I entered the fiction contest, and though I wasn't one of the top 3 finalists (alas), I did manage to do well enough to get a significant reduction in tuition, and so it seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up.

I've an interest in African literary culture and have been trying for a few years to remedy my considerable ignorance of both African literature and history; this program seems like a good way to continue that exploration.

With luck, I'll be able to do a bit of blogging from Kenya, but I won't know until I get there what time and resources will allow. Between now and then I hope to write a bit about some African fiction, and I'm sure that after I return I will want to share much of what I've discovered, thought about, and learned.

27 October 2006

Elsewheres

24 October 2006

The Limits of Rhetorical Negativity

Today's happy thought comes to us via Ben Marcus, writing about Thomas Bernhard in the November Harper's:
Bernhard's language strained the limits of rhetorical negativity: if his prose were any more anguished, it would simply transmit as moaning and wailing. Building interest in the grief experienced by people who look at the world and find it unbearable was a dark art of Bernhard's, and his characters do not resist the long walk to death's door but run to it and claw at the surface, begging for entry. After all, says Strauch, the agonized painter in Bernhard's first novel, Frost, "there is an obligation towards the depth of one's own inner abyss," even if meeting that obligation destroys you.
Note that in addition to Frost being released in the U.S. for the first time, Bernhard's Gargoyles and The Loser have also been re-released in paperback.

23 October 2006

Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation; vol. 1: The Pox Party by M.T. Anderson

My experiment in reading YA novels did not begin particularly well. I got 60 pages into A Drowned Maiden's Hair and found myself resenting the book because it was such a slog to get through, and any time I feel this way, I know that a combination of the book's qualities and my mood are leading toward nothing good for either of us, and so I stopped. It may be a perfectly good book for kids, but it was definitely not a perfectly good book for me.

I then looked at The Black Tattoo, but it didn't really catch my attention, so I didn't read far, and instead moved on to other books. I may return to it, I may not.

Then Meghan McCarron borrowed the advanced copy of Octavian Nothing that I've had since Kelly Link and Gwenda Bond insisted I pick it up at BEA, and she insisted I would enjoy it.

Meghan was right. The book fully titled The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation; vol. 1: The Pox Party is among the best books I've read in the last few years. Not among the best books for kids that I've read in the last few years, because that would be an easy group to be at the head of, but among the best books of any sort, for anyone.

Previously, I had only read Anderson's novel Thirsty, which I thought was pretty good as far as books for kids go, but it didn't feel particularly substantial, and I had a mixed opinion of the ending, which seemed to me simultaneously brave and a cop-out.

Octavian Nothing is a novel of substance, and nothing in it feels like a cop-out. It amazes me that this book can be marketed to a young adult audience, because it is written in the diction of the 18th century, sometimes densely so, making the reading of it seem at times more like reading Mason & Dixon than the average Newbery Award winner. I'm sure the book would have been published had Anderson not written anything else, but I wonder if the reason it has been published as YA is simply because that is an audience Anderson already has access to -- there is simply nothing, other than the narrator's age, that makes this a book that must be sold to people under the age of 20, and yet is the marketing category into which it is being placed. I don't mean to suggest this is a bad thing, and it may, in fact, be better than the alternative, because Candlewick Press has given it real attention and turned the text into a lovely physical artifact -- even the ARC is graceful.

I don't mean to linger too long on the vagaries and oddities of marketing in these confused times, and my comments above may reflect more of my ignorance of the YA category than anything else. Regardless of how it is sold, Octavian Nothing is an astounding book. It tells the story of a slave before and during the American Revolution, a boy whose mother is brought to the colonies from Africa and sold, along with her young son, to a society of scientists that has some similarities to the American Philosophical Society and its ilk. He and his mother become part of a strange experiment, and the nature of that experiment changes over the course of the novel, until eventually Octavian escapes and joins a militia fighting against the British. The story is episodic and picaresque, the many years of events linked together through the authority of Anderson's narrative voice, which is mostly built from Octavian's own words, though as the tale progresses more and more other documents are inserted, including newspaper clippings and letters from various other characters. Linking it all, too, are themes of freedom and restraint, of liberty and slavery, science and myth, knowledge and ignorance. These themes are handled deftly -- inextricable from the story and characters, yet always present, emerging from the conversations and events in ways far more complex than in even many heralded novels about such subjects. Our knowledge of history makes the events even more poignant, because we know that any victory Octavian can achieve for himself will be within the context of a society that would maintain the institution for slavery for nearly another century, and violent racism for much longer.

Complexity of themes and ideas is certainly welcome, but it is the quality of writing and structure that differentiates the well-intentioned novel from the great. Octavian Nothing is intelligently structured and brilliantly, beautifully written. For instance, these paragraphs from early in the book:
A man in a topiary maze cannot judge of the twistings and turnings, and which avenue might lead him to the heart; while one who stands above, on some pleasant prospect, looking down upon the labyrinth, is reduced to watching the bewildered circumnavigations of the tiny victim through obvious coils -- as the gods, perhaps, looked down on besieged and blood-sprayed Troy from the safety of their couches, and thought mortals weak and foolish while they themselves reclined in comfort, and had only to snap to call Ganymede to their side with nectar decanted.

So I, now, with the vantage of years, am sensible of my foolishness, my blindness, as a child. I cannot think of my blunders without shriveling of the inward parts -- not merely the desiccation attendant on shame, but also the aggravation of remorse that I did not demand more explanation, that I did not sooner take my mother by the hand and--

I do not know what I regret. I sit with my pen, and cannot find an end to that sentence.

I do not know what we may do, to know another better.
The progression of the diction there is what most thrills me, because the complexity of the first paragraph demonstrates Octavian's struggle to frame and express his feelings, and then the passage ends in a simplicity that reflects "the desiccation attendant on shame" and reveals the sadness hiding beneath the learned thought. What begins as a fine mimicry by Anderson of 18th century writing ends in utterly contemporary plainness, and this development mirrors the book's own balancing act: the evocation of a lost time to cause readers to reflect on their own era, their own situations and lives. Similarly, it mirrors the task we participate in as readers: with each page, we learn new things, we piece together new clues, we make connections that reveal the atrocities underlying the best-dressed and most-educated parts of society. The language finally implodes in the face of the worst crimes, filling the pages with blotted-out words, a choice that, had the material been less sensitively handled, would have been tricksy and clever, but is instead as powerful (and perhaps more powerful) than anything Anderson could have written.

I cannot resist ending these notes with words from the book itself, this time from the last pages:
They told me of substance and form; they told me of matter, of its consistency as a fluxion of minute, swarming atomies, as Democritus had writ; they told me of shape and essence; they told me of the motion of light, that it was the constant expenditure of particles flying off the surfaces of things; they told me of color, that it was an illusion of the eye, an event in the perceiver's mind, not in the object; they told me that color had no reality; indeed, they told me that color did not inhere in a physical body any more than pain was in a needle.

And then they imprisoned me in darkness; and though there was no color there, I was still black, and they were still white; and for that, they bound and gagged me.

People Collection

Because there is very little I would not do at the request of Clare Dudman, I shall continue the following meme-questionnaire-thing, which she tagged me for...

This seems to have originated here and requires the responder to list 5 personal qualities not generally known to readers of the blog it's being posted on. The idea, apparently, is to collect things that would be interesting attributes to draw on for characters in fiction.

Here's a required paragraph:
PLEASE LEAVE THE FOLLOWING IN ALL ‘PEOPLE COLLECTION’ POSTS

Remember that it isn’t always the sensational stuff that writers are looking for, it can just as easily be something that you take for granted like having raised twins or knowing how to grow beetroot. Mind you, if you know how to fly a helicopter or have worked as a film extra, do feel free to let the rest of us know about it :-)
We are all, apparently, interesting in our particularities.

Since I don't tend to put too much personal stuff up here, this should be fairly easy. Let's see...

1. In the past few months a number of extremely wonderful things have happened to me, most of which will end up being chronicled here, but a little over a month ago my cat, Vanya, disappeared. We had been companions for 9 years, and this loss has affected me far more deeply than any of the wonderful things, which is, I suppose, a testament to him and to how much he meant to me. He'd had a sister named Masha who died of cancer during the summer of 2001, and that loss was difficult, particularly because I hated to see her suffer, but it was softened because Vanya was still there, and so I was not alone.

2. I vehemently dislike shopping, and sometimes buy clothes that don't fit or items that are not what I was looking for because once I get into a store, all I want to do is get out.

3. Often when thinking, I flip a pen or pencil in my hand, usually without looking at it.

4. I have a motorcycle license, but haven't ridden a motorcycle in ten years.

5. I was an extra in the skating scene in the movie The Good Son, written by Ian McEwan and starring Macauley Culkin and Elijah Wood. Culkin was sequestered from the extras for most of the 9-day shoot, but he did seize the megaphone one day and have a group of us play "Simon Says" and "Hokey-Pokey" with him. Elijah Wood was far more friendly, not being particularly famous back then, and I remember pleasant conversations with both him and his mother.

If this sort of thing interests you and you have a blog of your own, consider yourself tagged.

18 October 2006

Manbug

Things are a-hoppin' at the LBC, with Jeff Bryant proclaiming his passion for the book he nominated for this term, Sideshow by Sidney Thompson and me singing the praises of my nominee, Manbug by George K. Ilsley. Of course, Sam Savage's Firmin was the book that got the most votes, and it's a fun book well worth your attention, but don't neglect the other two, either.

(And no, even though Jeff, Ed, and I are known in certain circles as The Boyz of the LBC, we did not agree beforehand only to choose books with one-word titles written by men.)

17 October 2006

Lit'ry Magazines

My favorite benefit so far of being series editor for the upcoming Best American Fantasy is getting to read things I wouldn't otherwise know about or have ready access to, including a wide variety of magazines generally considered part of the literary mainstream. Inspired by these two posts from other bloggers, I thought I'd highlight a few that I have been looking through recently -- not an exhaustive list by any means, but rather a little sampling.

Agni is a magazine I used to subscribe to, but because I try to scatter my subscriptions, I let it go, and now I regret it. I haven't read a recent issue, but I have enjoyed some of the web-only content they've posted, and I expect the journal itself is as varied and high-quality as I always found it to be. I know I'll spend a day at the library catching up with this year's batch of fiction, in case there's something appropriate for BAF, and I look forward to it.

Gargoyle is a genuine find, a journal I hadn't encountered before beginning the BAF selection process. The quality is wildly varied, but the fiction is consistently strange, and that alone is enough for me to recommend it.

The quality of fiction in Hobart also fluctuates a bit, at least to my taste, but when it's good it's very good, indeed. I like Hobart's openness to all sorts of different things, from the realist of realism to utter batshit surrealism. It's a fine place to discover new writers with unique, individual qualities. Hobart is a young magazine yet, and lots of people have never heard of it, so I expect that it will have a breakout moment in the coming years, one where all sorts of people suddenly say, "Hey, where's this magazine been all along?" Read it now so you can feel superior to those people later.

Ninth Letter is a magazine with high production values -- it's like something from TTA Press on steroids. The design sometimes gets in the way of the readability, but when every page looks like it could be hung on a museum wall, that's a small price to pay. I've only read one issue so far, but the one I read was full of wonderfully weird work.

There was a time when I thought the New England Review was really boring, but either I or the magazine or, most likely, both have changed. This was one of the first magazines to send us copies for consideration for BAF, and to be honest, I laughed -- "What," said I to meself, "is this bastion of realism doing sending itself to Best American Fantasy?!? Whose idea of a joke is this?!" But I take my job as series editor seriously, and have vowed to read at least a few pages of every piece of fiction in every magazine we encounter, and the joke was on me. The nonfiction seems stronger to me than the fiction at the moment -- so strong, in fact, that I was considering trying to convince our guest editors to alter our guidelines somewhat to include at least one essay -- but I now am excited when each new issue arrives, because my preconceptions have been blown to bits, and that seems to me like a good state in which to read new stories.

A Public Space is a newcomer that I find myself recommending to people constantly, purely because I read the first issue cover-to-cover with great enjoyment. (It included a story by Kelly Link, which is what first brought it to my attention, but I was pleased to discover that just about everything in the first issue held my interest and sparked plenty of thought and, often, pleasure.) The fiction is a strange and eclectic mix, including both formally innovative and relatively straightforward work, the kind of mix I most enjoy, but the nonfiction is just as eclectic. I recently received the second issue, and it looks promising as well. I particularly like the section in each issue focusing on one country -- in the first issue, Japan, in the second, Russia.

Threepenny Review is another journal I've subscribed to for a while, and one that has survived my tendency to only subcribe to a magazine for a couple years. Frankly, I've seldom enjoyed much of the fiction, but the essays and reviews are among the best I know: thoughtful, surprising, beautifully written.

Zoetrope: All-Story is a magazine I've been reading for some time, though in the past I've thought its quality has been rather hit-or-miss. That's not been the case with the last couple issues, though, both of which I read cover-to-cover. In the past, Zoetrope tended toward traditional, plot-driven fiction, but the most recent issues have shown more variety of style and approach than I remember from before, which may be merely a delusional perception on my part, because I haven't gone back to old issues to compare. Whatever that perception is, though, the fact is that the newest issues are very much worth reading.

I don't know of anything in the world of literary magazines quite like the great Ralan.com market site for SF, but if you're interested in exploring the (overwhelmingly) vast world of lit journals, New Pages and Web del Sol are good places to spend time exploring. (The annual Pushcart Prize volumes are also a treasure trove of fiction, poetry, and essays you're not likely to come upon unless you devote most of your days to reading lit mags.)

Reds

Thursday will mark the 86th anniversary of John Reed's death, and today Paramount released Warren Beatty's romantic epic about Reed, Reds, for the first time on DVD in honor of the film's 25th anniversary.

I will not pretend that Reds is a Great Film, much as it wants to be, nor will I proclaim it a brilliant work of political popular art. But I love watching it, because part of what it does is what the best romantic epics do -- it presents us with a world that seems like a wonderful place to live and characters who are tremendously passionate, idealistic, and much larger than any life I, at least, know. It makes art and politics seem like things worth living for. It is, in many ways, then, a movie designed to appeal to adolescents. I adored it when I was 16. After watching Reds then I went out and found books about Reed, about Emma Goldman, about Eugene O'Neill (whose birthday, by the way, was yesterday), about socialism and Bolshevism and all the wonderful and terrifying events surrounding World War I and the Russian Revolution.

Among my favorite parts of the movie now are parts that confused me when I was a teenager: the "witnesses" -- the actual people, discovered by Beatty and his research crew, who knew Reed and Louise Bryant, some of them famous (Henry Miller, Rebecca West), some of them not. Their testimonies are interwoven throughout the movie, providing contradictory views, hazy memories, and personal viewpoints that remind the viewer not to take the events portrayed by the film as objective history, but rather as one narrative among many. (Indeed, though sometimes very accurate to recorded fact, the film also includes plenty of moments that are epic but not at all historical.)

Aside from the witnesses, the storytelling is conventional and familiar, but this isn't much of a fault, because some of the acting is tremendous, particularly some of the smaller roles -- Maureen Stapleton as Emma Goldman is so forceful I've hardly been able to imagine Goldman in any other way, and for one reason or another Gene Hackman's bit part as Pete van Wherry has remained among my favorites of his roles.

Publicists may try to sell more copies of the movie by trumpeting its relevance to our current time of unbridled capitalism and wars to spread democracy, and while there are certainly some good speeches against war and money in the film, it's primarily the story of two people who loved each other but couldn't quite ever get that love to work for very long, because the world kept calling them away from themselves. They seem to have gotten caught up in world events as much out of luck as planning, and then found themselves consumed and distracted by more passions than they knew what to do with, which led to more pain than they probably deserved, and the kind of dramatic life that is, on reflection, more satisfying to watch than to live.

16 October 2006

Things

There are things in the world. Some of them include:
  • Firmin, the Fall 2006 LitBlog Co-op Read This! choice. Much more to come in the next few weeks about Firmin and the other two nominees.

  • I got my contributor's copies of One-Story today. That means they should be heading out to subscribers this week...

  • Electric Velocipede #11 is now ready for pre-order. This issue includes my collaboration with Jeff Ford, "Quitting Dreams", as well as some things you might actually enjoy reading.

  • Theodora Goss has posted the TOC to Interfictions, the anthology of "interstitial" stories being published by Small Beer Press, edited by Dora and Delia Sherman. It's an interesting mix of authors, and particularly nice to see some translated fiction there.

  • It's Fall Fund Drive time at Strange Horizons. At SH the staff are all volunteers, but the writers get paid. Go give them money so no more editors get arrested for armed robbery of NPR stations.

14 October 2006

The Lack of Conclusion

From "Kierkegaard and the Novel" by Gabriel Josipovici, in The Singer on the Shore: Essays 1991-2004:
As Kierkegaard puts it: all we ever have in life are gossip and rumours; our world is the world of the newspaper and the barber-shop, it is not the world of Jesus and his Apostles. A person seduced by our culture's admiration for art into becoming a writer embarks on a more dangerous enterprise than he or she may realise. If they embark on a work of fiction they imply that they have escaped the world of rumour, that instead of living horizontally, as it were, they live vertically, in touch with some transcendental source of authority. And we who read them do so because we feel that this must indeed be the case. But the closer they get to the end the clearer it becomes that there is no vertical connection. And should they try to bring their work to a close the contradiction between what it implies and the truth of the matter will become quite obvious. The only way for some semblance of truth and clarity to emerge is for the author to recognise that the conclusion, that which would finally give authority to the book, is lacking, to feel this quite vividly and to make us feel it as well.

13 October 2006

Soundtracking

One of my favorite things to do when directing a play is to put together the soundtrack, and sometimes when writing I will try to manipulate how I write by what music I select for the background (or don't select -- silence has its own effect).

Thus, I was immediately interested in the new "soundtrack to your life" meme that Gwenda Bond and Elizabeth Bear did. For fun, I put iTunes on shuffle and looked at what the songs would correspond to. I didn't intend originally to write about it here, but the songs that came up created a strange sort of narrative, with some spooky syncronicity, and I immediately began trying to think of a story to build from most of them. I'll probably try to write the story, so am recording here the initial impulse...

IF YOUR LIFE WAS A MOVIE, WHAT WOULD THE SOUNDTRACK BE?
So, here's how it works:
1. Open your library (iTunes, Winamp, Media Player, iPod, etc)
2. Put it on shuffle
3. Press play
4. For every question, type the song that's playing
5. When you go to a new question, press the next button
6. Don't lie and try to pretend you're cool...

Opening Credits:
"Oliver Cromwell" by Monty Python
The most interesting thing about King Charles the first is that he was 5 foot 6 inches tall at the start of his reign, but only 4 foot 8 at the end of it....because of....

Waking Up:
"So Come Back, I Am Waiting" by Okkervil River
And there’s plenty of ways to claim his crimes tonight,
and there’s plenty of things to do on his dime.
And there’s plenty of ways to wear his hide tonight.

You’ve got yours and I’ve got mine.
You’ve got yours and I’ve got mine.
So why
did you flee?
Don’t you know you can’t leave his control
only call all his wild works your own?
So come back and we’ll take them all on.
So come back to your life on the lam.
So come back to your old black sheep man.


First Day at School:
"Evening Song" by Philip Glass, from Satyagraha [no lyrics]

Falling in Love:
"I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow" from O Brother Where Art Thou?
I am a man of constant sorrow
I've seen trouble all my day.


Fight Song:
"So Fast, So Numb" by R.E.M.
listen. this is now. this is here.
this is me. this is what I wanted
you to see.
that was then. that was that.
that is gone. that is past.
you cast yourself, cast.
passed by, thrown down fast. you say.

you say that
you hate it.
but you want to recreate it.


Breaking Up:
"Gold Dust" by Tori Amos
How did it go so fast
you'll say
as we are looking
back
and then we'll
understand
we held gold dust
in our
hands


Prom:
"Divertimento for Strings" by Bela Bartok [no lyrics]

Life is Good
"Estate Sale" by Eels
Man: "These are the sounds of the days that are past."

Woman: "A miracle was about to happen."


Mental Breakdown:
"Poor Ditching Boy" by Richard Thompson
Was there ever a winter so cold and so sad
The river too weary to flood
The storming wind cut through to my skin
But she cut through to my blood


Driving
"Hold On, Hold On" by Neko Case
Compared to some I've been around
But I really tried so hard
That echo chorus lied to me with its
"Hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on"


Flashback:
"Play Dead" by Bjork
I play dead,
and the hurting stops.
It's sometimes just like sleeping,
curling up inside my private tortures.


Getting Back Together:
"Crazy Man Michael" by Natalie Merchant
Michael he whistles
The simplest of tunes
As he asks of the wild woods
Their pardon
But his true love has flown
Into every flower grown
And he must be keeper
Of the garden


Wedding
"Don't Explain" by Billie Holiday
Hush now, don't explain
Just say you'll remain
I'm glad you're back, don't explain


Paying the Dues
"Paranoid Android" by Radiohead
Please could you stop the noise, I'm trying to get some rest
From all the unborn chicken voices in my head


The Night Before the War
"Happy" by The Frames
Come help me out I'm sick from the fight
from inserting a laugh where there's none
show me where this joke got tired


Final Battle
"Ruby's Arms" by Tom Waits
I'll feel my way down the darkened hall,
and out into the morning
the hobos at the freightyards
have kept their fires burning
so jesus christ this goddamn rain
will someone put me on a train
I'll never kiss your lips again
or break your heart


Moment of Triumph
"Police on My Back" by The Clash
I'm running down the railway track
Could you help me? Police on my back
They will catch me if I dare drop back
they will kill me for the speed I lack


Death Scene
"Hell Yeah" by Ani DiFranco
Life is a b movie
It's stupid and it's strange
A directionless story
And the dialouge is lame
But in the he-said/she-said
Sometimes there's some poetry
If you turn your back long enough
And let it happen naturally


Funeral Song
"Coin-Operated Boy" by Dresden Dolls
coin-operated boy
sitting on the shelf
he is just a toy
but i turn him on
and he comes to life
automatic joy
that is why i want
a coin-operated boy
made of plastic and elastic
he is rugged and long-lasting
who could ever ever ask for more
love without complications galore
many shapes and weights to choose from
i will never leave my bedroom
i will never cry at night again
wrap my arms around him and pretend


End Credits
"Angels of Deception" by The The
Down by the river, I've been washing out my mouth,
'cuz deep in the heart of me
there's a frightened man breaking out.
Oh I was just looking for paradise
anywhere in this world
While they're gunning for heaven--
from this man made hell!


I doubt I'll stick with the exact circumstances of the sections (prom?!) for the story, but I'll definitely keep the order of songs and see what happens. If it seems to be going well and worth sharing, I'll post fragments here.

12 October 2006

Rain Taxi Online

The latest issue of Rain Taxi Online has been posted, and it includes my review of the anthology Transgender Rights, a book anyone interested in matters of gender and sexuality is likely to find interesting and provocative.

The issue is full of good things, including an interview with Raymond Federman and some wonderful letters between poets.

I was particularly taken by the letter from John Yau, a poet whose work fascinates me. The whole letter -- the whole exchange with Anselm Berrigan, really -- is worth reading, but this especially stuck in my head:
I don't think I began writing poetry out of a desire to talk to someone, to send (one could say) a love poem to either a specific or general you, but out of the recognition that there was no one to talk to.

11 October 2006

"Created He Them" by Alice Eleanor Jones

I've begun reading (more or less randomly) around in Justine Larbalestier's anthology of stories and criticism, Daughters of Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century. It's a rich and rewarding book, particularly for anyone interested in literary history and gender studies, because the format of having each story followed by an in-depth essay about the story's era, author, and perspective allows a more vivid view than would a book that was either primarily an anthology of fiction or primarily an anthology of criticism.

Of the stories that I have read so far and was previously unfamiliar with, Alice Eleanor Jones's "Created He Them" is the one that has remained in my mind. Lisa Yaszek's essay on "1950s SF, the Offbeat Romance Story, and the Case of Alice Eleanor Jones" provides fascinating background on Jones, a writer who mostly wrote stories for the "slicks" such as Ladies Home Journal and Redbook, but who also had published a handful of science fiction stories in 1955. Yaszek provides some background on what has been called "diaper" or "housewife heroine" SF, stories that featured women protagonists in domestic roles, and she makes a good case for giving more political value to these stories than they have received in the past.

(I have to pause for a tangential comment: The historical analyses and socio-political manuevers of the essays are certainly interesting, but as I was reading Josh Lukin's essay about the story following "Created He Them", Kate Wilhelm's "No Light in the Window" from 1963, I began to think about the value in reading mediocre work from particular periods. Though Lukin makes a heroic effort to redeem Wilhelm's story, it would be absurd to argue that it is among Wilhelm's best work, and I, at least, can't see that it's much more than a competently-told tale with a clangingly predictable twist ending. Yet this is where the design of Daughters of the Earth is particularly strong -- we do not need this to be an anthology of "the best SF stories by women". Indeed, an anthology such as this, one that seeks to examine and re-examine particular types of writing within their historical and political contexts, would do a disservice by including only great stories, because that would create a false picture of literary history. [Which is not to suggest there aren't great stories here -- there are.] The essays are insightful, and the stories provide the material for their insights, thus creating a new context, one in which a discussion occurs between generations and various types of writers, a discussion that I may be undermining by focusing on only part of the book here, because it seems that this is a book best evaluated and absorbed as a whole, which means that I am writing against my own better judgment. But what's the fun in writing if you don't, at least occasionally, go against your better judgment?)

All I really have to say is that "Created He Them" is a devastatingly efficient post-apocalypse story, and a fine example of what well-crafted popular fiction can accomplish. It was published in the June 1955 issue of F&SF, and it tells the story of a woman unhappily married to a bitter, verbally-abusive husband. The society in the story increases the need for the two people to remain married, and this raises the stakes of everything. It also allows a nuanced conclusion to the story -- a tale that could have ended with a neat and ostensibly satisfying resolution instead opens up to offer a dilemma where the personal and the social are pitted against each other. The sad and damaged world in which the events occur is drawn with evocative details, and the general mood of melancholy that fills the plain, spare prose of every sentence accumulate real emotional power. This is a story where the careful telling allows readers even now, more than fifty years after it was first published, to feel the plight of its characters, and to care. Without denying the subtle political commentary or historical interest of "Created He Them", the first thing that hit me, and the sense that has remained with me days after reading it, is the elemental emotional power conveyed by its originality of conception and its careful structure and language.

09 October 2006

All the Links that Are My Life

Sorry for the silence around here lately. Here are some places that haven't been silent...

03 October 2006

A Conversation with Katherine Min

Katherine Min's first novel, Secondhand World is being released by Knopf in the U.S. today. I cannot pretend to lack bias about this book -- I've known Katherine and her family for ten years now, we spend time together whenever we can, and the day she sold Secondhand World to Knopf I bounced around with joy and happiness for hours. It is a lovely book, beautifully written, sensitive and disturbing.

Katherine's short stories have been published in many of the major literary magazines in the U.S., and her story "Courting a Monk" won a Pushcart Prize and was reprinted in The Pushcart Book of Short Stories. Secondhand World has been chosen as the October pick of the Redbook Book Club, and Katherine is about to begin a book tour that will take her to various cities throughout the U.S. If you're immediately curious to hear her read and discuss her work, you can listen to a recent interview at New Hampshire Public Radio.

We could have done this interview when we went out for dinner last week, but somehow we felt that an interview by email would be more fun, or at least more writerly, and so I fired off a couple rounds of questions, and she graciously provided answers.

Eyes seem like a potent symbol for you and reoccur in your work. Do you have any particular reason for this?

The eyes are the most marked Asian feature. I remember when I was four or five years old, the first time another kid looked at me and pulled the skin up at the ends of his eyes to make them slanted. I went home and studied myself in the mirror. My eyes weren't slanted, but they were smaller and more narrow than Caucasian eyes. When I was in high school, my friends used to tease me; they'd ask what it was like to only be able to see 75 percent of what they could see. I started to wonder if they really could see more than I did. Later I heard about Asian people getting eye surgery to give their eyes a rounder, more Western look. I even knew a girl who did it, though I think she looked weird and not as pretty after. The funny thing is that if you look at Japanese anime, all the characters have big, round eyes, and sometimes they're even blue. (Go, Speed Racer!) So, yeah, I write about eyes a lot as a stigma for my Korean characters. Hey, I've got a stigmatism!

What is the attraction of fiction for you rather than another form?

I think I'm tempermentally suited to be a poet. I love words and sounds and cutting to elemental transcendence. But I'm too undisciplined to actually think too hard about meter and rhyme schemes. And I'm sort of attached to character. And to some sort of event or story. (I wouldn't venture as far as plot, because I don't that often in my work.) But my prose writing is lyrical (that kiss of death word), and I would say that short stories, with their possibility of perfection and handheld craftsmanship, are still more comfortable for me than novels.

You seem to be a formalist in your conception of poetry ... do you have an aesthetic credo for fiction?

I don't know if I'd call it an aesthetic credo, but I've always cottoned to the "beauty is truth, truth beauty" idea. And I do tend to trust the language. When a word sounds right, it's often "sense" right. I tend to dislike polemic and idea-driven fiction. What I crave most -- both in reading and writing -- is an intensity of vision and an authenticity of voice. And, yes, beauty above all. But not superficial beauty.

While writing it, did Secondhand World feel like a progression from previous things you had written?

Absolutely. I had been writing lots of stories about Korean American daughters and their severe immigrant Korean fathers, and I reached the apotheosis in Secondhand World. I have now said everything I have to say on the subject and hereby swear never to write (directly, in any case) about this sort of domestic relationship. And long-suffering Korean mothers, too.

Does it feel freeing to have Secondhand World as the apotheosis of a certain subject matter you've been exploring for some time now? How do you locate other things that obsess you enough you want to write about them?

Oh, the things find me. Yes, it feels good to think that I've said what I wanted about father-daughter relations, and now I'm into obsessing over Asian fetishism, and trying to really understand where it comes from. And obviously this comes from a lifetime of observation of a certain type of Caucasian or African-American man who finds Asian women (or men) blanketly beautiful. These guys are mostly scorned by Asian women, but what makes them any different from a woman who is attracted to blond surfer guys? There is a difference, of course, but what it is precisely is interesting to me. Also, the challenge of writing a character like this with sympathy and compassion.

The chapters in Secondhand World are all very short, and many read like self-contained vignettes, though they have a vivid cumulative effect. Why was this the best approach for this story?

As I've said, I'm not a novelist by nature. I had to trick myself into writing a novel, and the way I came up with was to write these very short, evocative chapters and then play around with them to find how they fit together. I got the idea from the novel Mrs. Bridge by Evan Connell. I love the way the vignettes in that novel accrue with such devastating power to create a portrait of this woman. And I thought, that's something to try. What's ironic is that in the course of writing Secondhand World this way, I kind of stumbled on a plot, and it actually became the most plottish (plotty?) thing I've ever written.

Were there other novels that you looked to as models or inspiration while writing your own?

At various times I had running through my head, or lying around on my desk: Lolita, because of its transcendent language and transgressive relationships; Revolutionary Road, because of its devastating truthfulness about marriage and the lies we live by; Madame Bovary, because of its clear-eyed take on the banalities of adultery and romance; and Dubliners, because of its heartbreaking portraits of people in isolation.

Has living in rural New Hampshire affected your writing?

Hmm... well, the winters are long and there isn't a lot to do... I'm the kind of writer who lives very much inside my head, so I'm not sure it matters as much to me where I live as it does to other writers. But I'm sure it does affect my work, as does every single thing a writer encounters. I have lived in New England most of my life, and I am drawn to a certain economy New Englanders possess, in money matters, in emotion, and in language. Nothing is wasted. Not that I myself am that way; Koreans tend to extravagance, excess, and indulgence, especially Mins. But I do admire and adopt a bit of that spareness in my writing style. And the MacDowell Colony is here -- my favorite place to write on the planet (I wrote most of Secondhand World there), so I am grateful for that lovely piece of rural New Hampshire.

What is it about spare writing that attracts you? Is this true for you as a reader as well?

No, I love fat 19th century novels with their sprawling, embroidered sentences. And one of my earliest big influences was John Fowles' The Magus and The French Lieutenant's Woman. I'm not a huge fan of minimalism as it is represented by Hemingway on down. I think my sense of spare comes more from something like haiku or Taoism. There is immense power in saying a lot with as little as possible. Like in Tai Chi, which I am learning... Master Tung can practically fling a 200 pound man across the room with a flick of his wrist. It's all concentrated movement and focusing the "chi". That's what I want to achieve in my writing, that tremendous force coming from such a simple, focused energy.

Do you think of yourself as a Korean-American writer, and does this (acceptance or rejection of the label) affect how you write and market your work?

I think of myself as a writer, full stop. But I am aware of how most everyone else perceives me, and I know how the book will be/has been marketed. I accept being Korean-American because that is what I am, but only in the way that Roth is Jewish, or that Nabokov was a Russian emigre. It's the point from which I begin, part of the inescapable self that I inhabit, that informs my world view. But I do resent being pigeonholed as a Korean-American writer, meaning that I can only write for or about Korean-Americans. That's why only one of the three main characters in my next novel is Korean.

Do you listen to music while you write?

I usually need quiet to write, though I am experimenting -- since my next book is about string musicians -- with listening to sonatas while I draft. Not sure I'll stick with it, though. I find music distracting, because I hear my sentences so clearly as I write, and they have their own rhythms.

If you could be one character in a movie, what would the movie be?

Well, I used to fantasize I was Brooke Adams in Malick's Days of Heaven, so I could agonize between a young Sam Shepard and a young Richard Gere. But, embarrassingly, the one character I'd like most to be is Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind, because she was willful, clever, and strong, and got almost everything she wanted. (And I knew she'd get Rhett back; it was only a matter of time.)

01 October 2006

The Second Annual Mumpsimus "Cup of Coffee for a Genius" Award

Last year I inaugurated the Mumpsimus "Cup of Coffee for a Genius" Award, bestowing it upon the great and glorious Rudi Dornemann. It is time now, once again, to send a hand-made mug and $5 to a writer of exceptional talent who has not received nearly enough attention.

Before announcing this year's winner, let's review the guidelines and process:

The Award
Winners of the award are chosen by a top-secret selection committee composed entirely of myself. The committee utilizes a specific set of vague criteria to determine a recipient. The recipient must
  • be an exceptionally creative individual, preferably a writer, preferably one whose work I've read
  • show significant promise for interesting future work, preferably writing
The award provides a qualified individual selected by the committee with the following prize:
  • One $5 bill and
  • A coffee mug made by Rick Elkin of Rising Moon Studios, a member of the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (who these days mostly makes jewelry, but he assures me he has a bunch of mugs ready for firing right now).
The goal of the award is to provide the recipient with enough money for at least one cup of coffee, plus a cup for that coffee.

The 2006 Award
The recipient of the 2006 Mumpsimus "Cup of Coffee for a Genius" Award is........

Yannick Murphy
I was introduced to Yannick Murphy's work this year when Carrie Frye nominated her novel Here They Come for the LitBlog Co-op. I wrote then about one paragraph in the book, and since first reading it, I have returned to various pages of Here They Come with great pleasure, because it's the sort of book that sits on the shelf and beckons me to return to it. Entire scenes have remained vivid in my mind for months and months now, and any writer who is capable of creating such an effect clearly possesses an uncommon talent, a particular and wonderful genius. It is with joy, respect, and gratitude that I give this award to Yannick Murphy, who I hope will continue to dazzle us with much more writing in the future.