28 July 2008

Teeth


I've been thinking a bit about dentistry, dentition, and various things dental this week due to a convergence of circumstances. First, I had some minor dental work, then at my neighbor's yard sale I picked up a copy of a children's book called Your Wonderful Teeth, which has some marvelous photographs. And then I watched the movie Teeth.

The pictures from the former will speak for themselves, but the latter requires a few words.


Teeth is a horror-comedy about vagina dentata. I saw the trailer a few months ago and had one of those "No, they didn't ... oh wow, they
did..." moments where at first I assumed my own strange brain was projecting something, only to realize that my projection was entirely accurate when the voiceover announced: "Dentata. It's Latin for 'teeth'."

I didn't expect much of the movie. How could it possibly live up to its premise? (And what, exactly, was there to live up to?) I assumed it would probably just be an extended castration fantasy, and though in some ways it is, the ways in which it is are amusing, because writer-director Mitchell Lichtenstein has deliberately flipped some of the expectations and prejudices inherent not only in the vagina dentata myth, but in ordinary woman-in-peril/woman-is-evil horror movies.

There is no way a movie about vagina dentata could avoid making the audience focus on the female protagonist's genitalia, and Lichtenstein has a good time in the opening parts of the movie manipulating this fascination. Visually, the movie evoked for me, in the beginning at least, Edward Scissorhands and Heathers -- weird suburbia, filmed in a stylized manner (or mannered style) that makes everything feel just a little bit beyond reality. The protagonist, Dawn (well played by Jess Weixler), is a member of an abstinence-till-marriage club at her high school, and her passionate devotion to this cause obviously channels all her thoughts and energies to one subject: sex. Sex for Dawn is full of horror and attraction, and it is her primary concern in life, a concern that is socially sanctioned because her obsession is expressed through the language of conservative morality. When she finally has to admit her attraction to one of her classmates, she is unprepared and conflicted, and he -- who has been trying to live up to her moral teachings -- descends to rape. And then ... crunch.

The gruesome violence of Teeth -- and it is explicit and bloody -- is always of a particular type: male. The gory moments of the movie are all about what Dawn's teeth bite off. Instead of the movie being all about what horrors can be inflicted on a pure and innocent female body, it becomes a movie about what can be inflicted on men who have previously always gotten what they wanted.

Despite its gore, Teeth is really a superhero movie. Dawn could be one of the X-Men (X-Women?). Mutation is a concept she latches on to when she is trying to figure out what is going on with her body, and the real arc of the narrative is of a superhero learning to control her powers -- and, ultimately, to use them for good. The last section of the movie exudes a spirit of joy and empowerment.

Were Dawn ever to write a manual for women with vagina dentata, she might even be tempted to call it Your Wonderful Teeth.

BAF Cover Preview

Ann just posted this, and so I'm going to do the same, as all wise people follow her lead:



The advance copies contain few of the ancillary materials, because, well, we're kinda still working on getting things like my preface, Ann & Jeff's intro, the recommended stories list, and an accurate "publications received" list finished (note to self: next time finish this list before you pack everything up and move it to another state).

25 July 2008

TBR



Just to remind myself of all I should be reading, I decided to take this photo of my most immediate to-be-read pile: books that I have either begun reading recently or need to start reading very, very soon because there are upcoming projects related to them (for instance, I agreed to write about Meja Mwangi for KenyaImagine, warning them that I wouldn't be able to get to it until August, but now August is ... a week away...) I'm reviewing the Nisi Shawl collection for Strange Horizons, and probably later reviewing the Greg Bear novel for them, and I owe SF Site a review of the LeGuin books (I haven't even gotten myself a copy of the second book in the trilogy yet...) Some of the others are for classes I'm teaching in the fall, while assorted others are books that I started reading recently and then had to run away from for a moment to go do something else and haven't had a chance to pick up again. Meanwhile, the mailman just drove up my driveway, which means he's got packages that won't fit in the mailbox.....

22 July 2008

Congratulations to Matt Bell

Matt Bell has won the StorySouth Million Writers Award for his story "Alex Trebek Never Eats Fried Chicken" from Storyglossia. (Galleycat has a good write-up about the award and Matt here.)

I'm noting this not because I'm a big fan of awards, but because I had not noticed Matt's name before Jeff and Ann VanderMeer picked his story "Mario's Three Lives" for Best American Fantasy 2008, and it's fun to see someone whose work we read without any knowledge of his background or abilities now achieving some recognition. So congrats to Matt, and let's hope this is just the beginning of many more accomplishments in the future!

Asimov at Bread Loaf

Moving back to New Hampshire has meant that I am, once again, living with all of my books -- I had left many in storage when I was in New Jersey. I still don't have room for them all, and will have to get rid of many if I ever want this place to look like anything other than a warehouse, but for now it's fun to reacquaint myself with the many books I have missed.

Yesterday's Readercon post, for instance, included a passing remark about Isaac Asimov at Bread Loaf, and I just now took the source of this information out of a box: Whose Woods These Are: A History of the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, 1926-1992 by David Haward Baine and Mary Smyth Duffy, which I bought when I attended Bread Loaf in the summer of 2000.

Asimov first visited Bread Loaf in 1950 at the invitation of one of the faculty members, Fletcher Pratt. In 1971 and 1972, he attended as a member of the faculty, invited by his friend John Ciardi, who was director of the conference for many years.

My favorite of the anecdotes about Asimov in the book comes from Seymour Epstein:
I remember [Asimov] saying something to the effect that I must teach him how to create fully dimensioned characters, and my thinking that I would be happy to try it if he would teach me how to make even a fraction of what he made on his writing.

Those Kids Spelt So Much Better with Typewriters!

There are many things that can be said about technology and education, and various issues related to both fields that are complex and not easily resolved. Over at The Chronicle Review (part of The Chronicle of Higher Education), Mark Bauerlein instead decides to go for useless simplification. (Which I discovered via Scott Esposito.)

Commenting on a comparative study of written errors in student papers from the '80s and now, Bauerlein decides that though the authors of the study, Andrea & Karen Lunsford (well-respected researchers in the field of composition and rhetoric), say that their study does not support the fears of "hard-core worriers who see a precipitous decline in student writing ability and who often relate that decline to the creeping of IM and other digital lingo", he knows better, and, in fact, the Lunsfords' study proves their own statement wrong -- computers have made student writers worse! (Note that the Lunsfords were speaking specifically of the sorts of errors that would be produced by students mistaking the diction of IM or text messaging for the diction of an academic paper. Bauerlein broadens the category to any computer-assisted mistake.) Bauerlein concludes:
Have the tools to support writing, such as spellcheck and grammar programs, made students too dependent upon technology? If a student tries to write “frantic” and the computer comes up with “fanatic” and the student accepts it (L & L’s example), doesn’t that suggest something about the potential disadvantages of digital tools? Don’t the problems with citation point to the potential disadvantages of over-fast downloading and cutting and pasting?

These are open questions, but I think we can say that instead of dispelling fears about the impact of technology on student writing, the Lunsford study raises them to a new level.
The best response to this idiocy is given by one of the commenters on the post:
Doesn’t the rapid use of keys on this new-fangled thing called a “typewriter” encourage the erroneous transposition of letters, e.g., “aslo” instead of “also”? Don’t these typewriter things mean that a student can get a friend to do the final draft, and [the] student won’t be able to make additional changes for the better during its writing? And doesn’t that correction ribbon on the high-end SelectWriters encourage careless speed?
(The commenter also points to this YouTube video of a Medieval helpdesk and then makes some cogent points.)

Even if arguing against digital technologies was a useful argument, to make it convincing the arguer would have to show that the types of errors those technologies introduce are both worse than the errors encountered without them and so heinous as to outweigh any advantages the technologies offer. Bauerlein instead looks like an old grump who's particularly angry today because somebody forgot to turn off their cell phone before class.

21 July 2008

Readercon Summary

A grand time was had by all at Readercon this year, and it was a great thrill for me to get to see one of my oldest friends in the writing world, James Patrick Kelly, as guest of honor -- honored so well and appropriately.

The two panels I was on seemed to go well, though I arrived at the con only half an hour before I was on the "Triumphing Over Competence" panel and hadn't quite adjusted yet, so my contributions were few. Adam Golaski did a fine job of moderating, but it was a tough topic to focus in on in a way that would lead to real insights. Saturday's "The Career of James Patrick Kelly" panel felt much more successful to me, and one of its strengths was the diversity in the backgrounds of the panelists -- we had all discovered Jim's writings (and Jim himself) at different times and in different ways. Of course, afterward I thought of many things I should have said instead of what I did, in fact say, but I probably talked too much anyway, so it's good I didn't think of them. Mostly, they would have been elaborations on my (nascent) ideas about Jim as a regional writer, particularly with relationship to Burn, a story that nicely meshes two of the primary types of stories Jim writes: tales rooted in a sense of place (with that place often redolent of northern New England) and tales that are set way out in the universe. In some ways, the earlier novel Look Into the Sun brought the universe to New Hampshire, while Burn brings New Hampshire out into the universe.

I didn't attend too many panels, because after seeing a few, I began to get immensely frustrated with people who didn't know when to shut up. Panels are almost always unbalanced, since it's difficult for everybody to speak for equal amounts of time, but it wasn't unbalance that bothered me -- it was hijacking. In one case, it involved an insufferable moderator who thought the entire point of being moderator was to pose questions to himself.

The conversation between Jonathan Lethem and Gordon van Gelder, though, was well worth attending. The goal of the discussion was to explore the similarities and differences between the worlds of (for lack of better terms) genre fiction and literary fiction by using the two men's careers and experiences as lenses, since, as van Gelder pointed out, they began at similar spots and ended up at very different places, with Gordon starting out as a book editor and then becoming editor of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Lethem beginning with stories in Aboriginal SF and Asimov's and F&SF, then becoming, well, Jonathan Lethem. I didn't have a notebook with me, so didn't take notes (Scott Edelman did take a few), but what stuck with me were such moments as Gordon wondering if there are ways to talk about the differences between types of writing without feeling the need to valorize one type over the other and Lethem saying that what has changed in his writing as it has developed is not his interest in questioning and subverting core genre values, which has been there from the beginning, but rather his ability to let his fiction absorb a genre exoskeleton rather than wear it. The genre-as-exoskeleton image was one he played with for a bit, saying that his earlier work wore the exoskeleton and let the body underneath it be something else, while now he feels like he doesn't need to wear it anymore, that there is a more organic or internalized sense of the fantastic (or mysterious) in his work. He said people sometimes see him as moving away from genre fiction and Michael Chabon as moving toward it, while he doesn't feel that way at all -- he still feels like the influences on his work are the same, and the genre writers who interest him remain the ones who complexify and question the traditions they inherit -- he could not, he said, write a sword-and-sorcery novel, as Chabon recently did, and he noted that Chabon has long been a much bigger fanboy than he, Lethem, ever was -- Chabon wrote (unpublished) science fiction novels before he wrote Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Lethem noted. What I liked about these distinctions was that they countered the simple narrative of moving toward or away from the SF field, and instead suggested that a writer's relationship to the texts and social environment of SF can be a complex one, and the results in the writer's work (and life) can be unpredictable.

One of the ideas that could have used a bit more time for exploration and explanation was the idea of the difference between the worlds of genre fiction and literary fiction being substantially one of class, with class anxiety explaining some of the tendency toward belittling different types of writing that Gordon brought up. Lethem also pointed out that people deeply committed to one type or writing rather than another often have tremendous misconceptions about the world of the other type of writing, and this idea, too, deserves a lot more exploration. I sometimes wish we could have the writing equivalent of a take-your-child-to-work day -- we could initiate Take a Litfic Writer to a Science Fiction Convention Day and Take a Science Fiction Writer to Bread Loaf Day (heck, Asimov went to Bread Loaf a couple times).

I refrained from buying too many books in the bookroom, though I did pick up JPK's new collection, The Wreck of the Godspeed and David Schwartz's novella The Sun Inside.

Ultimately, and as always, the best thing about the con was getting to see folks I seldom see, or, in some cases, have only met via email before -- it was great finally to get to meet Christopher Rowe (whose reading from a novel-in-progress is among the best readings I've ever been to), John Kessel, and Brian Slattery, and to at least wave to all sorts of people who I wish lived within easy walking distance of my house. But if they did, I would not need to go to Readercon, and the joy of renewed acquaintances would be lost.

13 July 2008

F&SF and WALL-E

While watching the marvelous end credit sequence of WALL-E last week, I thought I saw Shaun Tan's name amongst the art department, but I wasn't sure, because I was having too much fun following the concept of the credit sequence to pay close attention to the names. I thought I could rely on IMDB, but no, he's not listed there. Did I dream it? I fired up the ol' Google, though, and voilá -- this article from The Australian, wherein it is said: "...he was commissioned to do art work on the Hollywood children's films Horton Hears a Who and the forthcoming WALL-E. While he enjoyed both jobs and insists he has no complaints, most of his work ended up on the cutting-room floor."

The jaws of Google are vast, though, and they also caught an entry on TOR art director Irene Gallo's blog that is really the point of this whole entry. What they caught was Bob Eggleton's comment: "The ending credits are worth the price of admission and,really underscore the whole film! And yah for Shaun Tan's concept work in it. I HIGHLY recommend THE ART OF WALL-E by Tim Hauser. Has lots of concept art and paintings in it." (Methinks I shall be looking for this Art of WALL-E at the library...)

It's the blog entry that really captured my fancy, though, because in it Irene Gallo presents some images from old covers of F&SF by Mel Hunter and wonders about Hunter's influence on some of the film's designs. Great fun! And I'd never discovered Gallo's blog before, so am happy now to add it to the ever-growing blogroll.

[And what did I think of the film, you ask? It's charming, wonderfully made, particularly magnificent in the first 40 minutes or so, and I agree with Richard and everybody else who has said the last part is stupid, even for a kids' movie. The filmmakers followed the logic of their politics, not the logic of the world they had created -- what would make sense would be for all of the not-quite-right robots to return to Earth, which is a perfectly good and perhaps even paradisaical environment for them, and leave the humans to their spaceship, which is a paradisaical environment for them. The humans give up the utopia they have evolved into and trade it for an agricultural task far beyond their capacity. There is nothing inherently wrong with either world -- they just seem horrifying to us because we privilege our own way of living and our own prejudices about what is and isn't right and good above others, but the spaceship has solved the problem of human happiness (even if it has diminished human free will) and the Earth would be a marvelous playground for the robots, who can withstand its environment. The humans, who cannot withstand its environment without a lot of suffering, trade universal happiness for what is likely to be centuries of toil and misery. There can be no sequel to WALL-E, at least not one that is anything other than a fairy tale, because it would be more brutal than When the Wind Blows.]

12 July 2008

Readercon Schedule

For my stalkers, here are the panels I will be on at Readercon:

Friday 2:00 PM, Salon F: Panel

Triumphing Over Competence. Matthew Cheney, Carl Frederick, Adam Golaski (L), Theodora Goss, Claude Lalumiere, Cecilia Tan

Jeff VanderMeer created an online ruckus with the assertion that today's short fiction market has been overwhelmed by "the triumph of competence." We can think of nothing less useful than a debate between those who agree with VanderMeer and others who feel we are in a Golden Age of short fiction, since the presence of both camps argues convincingly that any response to today's short fiction market is subjective. Instead, let's ask: what practical things can we do to make things better, regardless of how good we think they are now? What can we do to promulgate the writing of more (or "even more") great stories? And what can we do to help readers find stories they'll love, especially if they've been burnt out by over-exposure to the merely good?


Saturday 10:00 AM, Salon G: Panel

The Career of James Patrick Kelly. Matthew Cheney, F. Brett Cox (L), Matthew Jarpe, Michaela Roessner, Sarah Smith

The program guide is now online as a PDF, and it's full of interesting stuff. Two films are worth noting: the Thursday night (10pm) showing of The Polymath, or The Life & Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman and this item Friday night:
9:00 ME Tom Disch’s “Winter Journey.” (40 min.) Almost exactly a year after the death of his longtime partner Charles Naylor in September 2004, Tom Disch began writing a sequence of poems, which he shared on his blog. Eventually there were 31 of them. He titled the sequence “Winter Journey” after Schubert’s lieder cycle “Winterreise” (a work Naylor loved). Elizabeth Hand calls the sequence “an extraordinary efflorescence of grief ... tragic, bitter, bleakly funny, romantic, heart-rending—and also accessible. I can imagine, by some divine fluke, the book becoming a surprise, posthumous bestseller—an irony Disch would have appreciated.” When the sequence was completed, Disch contacted friend and filmmaker Eric Solstein, and asked if a reading of the work might be videotaped to serve as a suicide note. At its conclusion, he said, he would kill himself, the attendant publicity hopefully contributing to the success of the recording. A deal was struck between Tom and Eric—the taping would proceed if the suicide were postponed for some indefinite period of time. This will be the first public showing of “Winter Journey.” The poems are to be published later this year, by Payseur and Schmidt, with a DVD of the reading included.
(Disch's suicide on July 4 has been on my mind ever since I learned about it. The best obituaries I've read so far are by John Clute and Liz Hand.)

Home

The back yard
I'm safely back in New Hampshire and beginning to settle in. Most of my time has been taken up with packing and unpacking -- moving into a house that was already fully lived in is quite a task. My father's aesthetic was not minimalist, and he'd lived here since the early '70s. I'm also discovering all the many joys of home ownership as I realize how much work needs to be done here (windows that really should be replaced before winter; dry rot that has to be dealt with; the many surfaces that need a coat [or five] of paint; the flying ants that have a secret entrance into one room...)

It's magnificently peaceful here, though, and more than anything else I needed some peace, so really I have no complaints.

Posting will resume within the next day or two. (During my absence, the entire internet seems to have gone insane, but I shall not confuse correlation and causation...)

Readercon is coming up next week, where it looks like I'll be on a couple of panels: one on "Triumphing Over Competence" (ways of finding -- and writing -- short fiction that is more than competent) and one on the career of James Patrick Kelly (for which I am currently now rereading Jim's first novel, Planet of Whispers, and will, I hope, have also reread Look into the Sun and a lot of the short stories by then. We shall see...)

For now, though, I shall leave you with an image from my back yard, a sign my father put up a long time ago and that has survived the passage of years surprisingly well: