29 May 2009

Outtakes from an Introduction

I've told the story of how I came to write the introductions to the revised editions of Samuel Delany's The Jewel-Hinged Jaw and Starboard Wine (the latter due to be published, last I knew, this fall [update 8/25/09: Now postponed till sometime next year]). The intro for JHJ that appears in the book, though, is very different from the first one I wrote, because from conversations with the editor at Wesleyan University Press, I got the impression that I should write a light, accessible, personal introduction for a general audience, something similar to Neil Gaiman's intro to The Einstein Intersection. No big deal. I had a sort of funny story about first encountering JHJ at much too young an age, so I built the introduction around that.

Chip Delany's reply was something to the effect of, "Great intro! Wrong audience!" Oops. (And, he asked, is JHJ really that difficult? No, certainly -- but I do tend to like to be dramatic...) It turned out that Chip had hoped for an introduction that was more along the lines of the long, scholarly introduction Ken James wrote for Longer Views. He told me to think of my audience as someone who has recently gotten a Ph.D. and is wondering why she should read this book.

I did my best to conceal my panic -- I don't, after all, have a Ph.D. myself, and I wasn't entirely sure I could write two introductions of 3,000-6,000 words each that would be even remotely coherent. In the end, though, I'm quite proud of how they turned out, and the research and thought I put into them ended up being some of the most pleasurable of my life.

After I turned in the final JHJ intro, Chip suggested I should put some outtakes from the first one up here. I'm not sure these are really worth preserving, but perhaps they will offer some amusement, and in any case I think it will prove that the change in perceived audience for the intro was nothing but a good thing...

The simple answer is the parentheticals.

First, though, we need the question. For that, I have to tell a few stories.

When I was in graduate school recently, my uncle asked me what course I was most enjoying. I said a course in postmodern theory. (He has spent enough time around academics to know roughly what I was talking about.) He said he had one question he'd always wanted to ask somebody in such a course, but he'd been afraid of offending them. I said he had no need to worry about offending me. "Well," he said, "what I've wondered is if any of that stuff has any value other than as some sort of game or in-joke. Is any of it really ... saying anything?"

I could have been a smart-aleck and replied that that was a very important problem in postmodern theory, the separation of this thing we call "language" and this other thing we call "meaning", but I wasn't feeling smart-alecky right then, and the uncertainty at the heart of his question had been bugging me quite a lot, too. My answer was one I have more or less stuck to since then: I don't immediately reject as worthless the complex and often convoluted sentences created by writers associated with that thing that has come to be known as Theory, because while certainly I have read plenty of essays and books that seem to hide vapid banalities in a labyrinth of neologisms and ornate syntax, some books and some essays use the labyrinth not to hide anything, but to house it most comfortably.

The question is: Is it worth the effort? The answer is: Yes, sometimes.

(But that's not the question we were searching for.)

[Then follows the small bit of personal stuff that actually made it into the intro, about me first encountering JHJ when I was a kid in the local college library, just discovering science fiction.]

And so now we come to the question for which I have already offered an answer: What does a reader need to pay the most attention to so as to begin understanding Delany's critical prose?

The simple answer is the parentheticals.

There are many different types of parentheticals with Delany. There are the ideas and comments put in parentheses. There are the footnotes and endnotes, many of which become mini-essays of their own. All of those are relatively easy things to work through, though. The challenge comes with the parenthetical statements within sentences, and the paragraphs that function as parenthetical remarks about other paragraphs. There is no simple trick to being able to comprehend the ideas that spring from other ideas and lead in directions of their own. It takes practice and patience.

Which brings us back to my uncle's question about contemporary critical theory in general: Is any of it really saying anything?

There is a corollary question: Does it have to be so difficult?

The simple answer to both questions is: Probably.

If you decide that a piece of writing is saying something, and saying something of value, that is because you have a context from which you can understand and value its ideas and a set of skills that allow you to understand how those ideas are expressed. When I first encountered The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, I was just a nerdy little kid, and I had neither the context nor the skills nor the experiences to get any more from it than I would have gotten from a textbook on nuclear physics. I returned to it after I had built up a context: I knew more about Delany, I knew more about science fiction, I knew more about reading and writing. Not a lot more, but enough to begin. I had read stories by Thomas M. Disch, Roger Zelazny, Joanna Russ. I had read Ursula LeGuin's The Dispossessed and thought it was the greatest novel ever written (because it was the most intellectually thrilling novel I had ever read, and I assumed nothing could be better). I knew a few general things about the New Wave in the 1960s, having by then read some of Judith Merril's best-of-the-year anthologies and Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions. I had begun to think about politics and gender and sexuality.

I'm sure other people could make sense of The Jewel-Hinged Jaw with a different sort of context, a different basic collection of references and general ideas, but this was the one that worked for me.


It can be interesting to chart what changes and what doesn't in Delany's ideas, but it is equally important to look at what changes in the culture from his earliest essays to his most recent, and how that is reflected in his analyses. One of the many things Delany has given us is a record of what it was like to be thinking about writing, reading, and living in a time when the perception of those things by the broader culture changed. The influence of such people as Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and Jacques Lacan was at first limited to the academy, but the influence exploded outward quickly enough, affecting everything from teaching styles to product design, so that now, forty years later, The Economist magazine can run an article suggesting that the ideas of Foucault, Barthes, and Jean-François Lyotard have been absorbed and assimilated by marketing researchers and venturing capitalists.

Beyond providing evidence of how Delany's writing metamorphoses, and beyond the fascination of controversies past, the value these essays hold for us now is their continuing ability to provoke thought. When I said that the secret of beginning to understand Delany is to pay attention to his parentheticals, what I was suggesting was that it is important to pay attention to how you, the individual reader, absorb his ideas. Don't get stuck on particular sentences -- you can come back to them later -- but instead let the flow of ideas inspire ideas of your own. If you start daydreaming while you read, don't worry about it, just remember where your thoughts took flight. When you come back, you will come back to the page as a different person with a different mind, and you will be able to pick up from where you left off, and go for a little while longer, until either you can't fit any more ideas in your head, or you start to dream again. Either result should be cherished.

Is any of it really saying anything—

Is any of it really saying anything to me?

That is the question each of us asks of anything we pay attention to, and the things we pay the most attention to are the things that cause us to answer the question with a strong Yes.

The way I answer that question is obvious. With The Jewel-Hinged Jaw finally back in print, you now have the chance to answer the question for yourself.

26 May 2009

Anthologies of African Literature(s)

The new issue of The Quarterly Conversation has been posted, and, as with every issue, it's full of interesting stuff (of special note is Scott Esposito's big essay on the fiction of Cormac McCarthy, but there's tons of other good material, too, including a consideration of the intersections of fiction and autobiography in the works of Janet Frame, to me one of the essential writers of the 20th century. Oh, and a review of the new translation of Andrei Platonov's The Foundation Pit. Haven't read Platonov? You must!)

The piece that has, for the moment, most caught my attention is a review by Geoff Wisner of Rob Spillman's anthology Gods and Soldiers: The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing. I just got a copy of this book, and have been looking through it eagerly, because I know Spillman (the editor of Tin House) cares deeply about African literature and has developed real knowledge of it, having spent time on the continent and having worked with numerous writers there. Thus, his take on contemporary African literature promised to be an interesting one.

A quick glance at the table of contents of the book, though, and I wasn't so sure -- half of the pieces are excerpts from novels (over half if you include Helon Habila's story "Lomba", which is part of Waiting for an Angel), no poetry is included, and the whole thing is a little over 300 pages long. The selections are arranged by geography and language, with sections for north, south, east, and west Africa as well as Francophone and "Former Portuguese Colonies" (here, Mozambique and Angola), and each section begins with an essay. Thus, this is primarily a collection of African fiction, and is more a sampler than anything else. It is clearly aimed at an audience that is unfamiliar with African lit -- Spillman includes a short chronology of "a few key dates to keep in mind" in his introduction, and each section is prefaced with a map. I started reading the pieces I wasn't already familiar with, and enjoyed each of them. I decided to relax a bit -- "You are not," I told myself, "the right audience for this book." I needed to see the book for its intentions, not my desires for it -- I yearn for there to be more comprehensive anthologies of African literatures, and because this is not such an anthology does not mean it doesn't serve a useful purpose or offer plenty of good stuff to read.

Geoff Wisner
is the wrong audience for the book, too, but more qualified than I to really assess it, since he is the author of A Basket of Leaves: 99 Books that Capture the Spirit of Africa (which I have not read; here is his African reading list), and so has given plenty of thought to how to introduce unfamiliar readers to the variety of literatures the continent has produced. I found myself mumbling, "Yes, yes, yes..." as I read his review. For instance, he notes one of my first hesitations, the oddity of including Chinua Achebe's classic essay "The African Writer and the English Language" and not an essay by, for instance, Ngugi wa Thiong'o in response -- there has been, for decades, a passionate debate among all sorts of different post-colonial writers about English, native languages, etc., and to offer only one perspective on it, even one as nuanced as Achebe's, does not admit the debate and thus distorts the context. (While chanting my mantra, "You are not the right audience for this book..." the only choice of Spillman's that really bothers me is this one. For some more background on this and other complexities of the topic, see, for instance, African Literature: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory or Transition 75/76.)

One thing that Wisner does not note, probably because Spillman likely had no say in it, is the book's cover. In the introduction, Spillman quotes Binyavanga Wainaina's famous and brilliantly sarcastic essay "How to Write about Africa", but doesn't quote from the second paragraph: "Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these." No naked breasts or prominent ribs, but we do have a child with a gun and the shadow of a soldier. Hmmm... The title isn't the greatest, either -- Gods and Soldiers would apply to many collections of geographically-based fiction, except, of course, Stories from the Godless Pacifist Autonomous Zone of Vermont. And it serves to reinforce the primary American image of Africa: polytheists (aka "primitives", "savages", etc.) with guns. But I suppose it's better than Diseased Cannibals or something like that.

(Mantra mantra mantra: "You are not the right audience for this book...")

Gods and Soldiers is a perfectly adequate sampler of some recent writing from people associated with the continent of Africa. (That's not likely to be chosen for a blurb, now is it?) The difficulty such an anthology faces is the difficulty of any marginalized literature -- good, honest, well-intentioned, and knowledgeable work will have to bear many burdens because it will, no matter its goals or qualities, be forced to be an exemplar. A collection of interesting African prose will suddenly become THE Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing and will likely be the only such anthology on bookstore shelves. My grumbles about the anthology are more grumbles about this fact than about the book itself. We need this book, yes. But we need this book to be one of many.

And now, lacking a good segue (this is a blog -- you want a segues, go elsewhere), I want to mention The Feminist Press's extraordinary four-volume anthology series Women Writing Africa. I would shout about these books from the rooftop if my house didn't have a steep tin roof that I fall off of easily. The anthologies are, in many ways, the exact opposite of Gods and Soldiers: focused, historical, as comprehensive as possible, and not at all intended to be a brief introduction. I borrowed one from a library and spent days with it and still felt overwhelmed by the variety and plenitude. They are hugely important books, books for which we should all be grateful. I plan to return to them many times, because they are books I aspire to be the right audience for.

24 May 2009

Poe: Father of Scientifiction!

This year is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe (born 19 January 1809) and here in his honor is a scan of an advertisement from the October 1928 issue of Hugo Gernsback's Science and Invention magazine (click on the image to see it full size):

(Fun typo: The description calls Poe "the greatest literary genus [sic] that America has ever produced".)

22 May 2009

A Conversation with Jedediah Berry

by Geoffrey H. Goodwin

Jedediah Berry(Geoffrey Goodwin was last seen around these here parts when he interviewed Thomas Ligotti. I'm thrilled that he has now returned with an interview with Jedediah Berry, author of The Manual of Detection and of one of my favorite stories of recent years, "Minus, His Heart" (first published by Chicago Review and conveniently reprinted in Best American Fantasy 2008). Jed has worked for Conjunctions and Jubilat, and he is currently Wizard-of-Many-Things [my term] at Small Beer Press.)

Geoffrey H. Goodwin: You've worked in the field a long time. When did you last have a job outside of books and publishing?

Jedediah Berry: My first job out of college was with PEN, the non-profit writers’ organization, and before that I was doing a work study job with the literary journal Conjunctions. I would have to go back to my first year of college, when I was washing dishes and painting curbs yellow. (Laughs.) So it's been a very long time. I've done odd jobs, certainly, in between. House painting, web design. And once I was paid by an eccentric old man in my hometown to paddle around his pond and rake the weeds out of the water. That was a study in futility.

GHG: What was the first thing you ever had published?

JB: The first thing online was with a journal called La Petite Zine, which is still going, and it's a site that I visit often. They published a very short, weird story of mine which was not even a story. It was a bestiary, just prose poem descriptions of fantastical creatures. I think my first print publication was with 3rd Bed, a journal which sadly is no longer with us. The fiction editor, who was Tobin Anderson, took this very short two-page vampire story that I sent them. That was a thrill. I was very happy to be in 3rd Bed.

GHG: Where else has your short fiction appeared?

JB: It's been in the Chicago Reviewand Fairy Tale Review, and those stories were later picked up by the Best New American Voices and Best American Fantasy anthologies. I have a story coming out in Conjunctions, which for me is very exciting, because when I first saw Conjunctions in college, I didn't know there were literary journals. [ed. note: That story, "Ourselves, Multiplied" is now available in Conjunctions 52: Betwixt the Between edited by Bradford Morrow and Brian Evenson.] That was my introduction to the fact that there was this vibrant community of readers and writers out there, and that new work was being published several times a year in this very accessible format. (Laughs.) So having a story in there is something coming full circle for me. Otherwise, I’ve had stories in some anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. That was the first time I was actually paid for my fiction, which came as a surprise at the time. I thought, "Oh, you're actually going to pay by the word? Amazing! Let me add a few!" (Laughs.)

GHG: So The Manual of Detection. You'd worked with Small Beer for a long time, so you knew a certain perspective that lots of writers don't have. Plenty of people write--and you'd done sort of the zine scene at conventions, so you had a bigger perspective than some...

JB:And yet the process still somehow caught me by surprise, I think partly because it started a bit earlier than I was expecting. Kelly Link had generously mentioned the novel to a couple of editors when I was maybe just halfway through it, so there was some interest in it that I didn't know how to field. I just kept that closed off for a while, because I needed to focus on finishing the book. And then I sent it out to a number of agents, and found one who I was so happy to find, Esmond Harmsworth. He sent me a copy of the Inspector Barlach novels by the Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt. I’d never read those books, and I was captivated by their strange and uneasy playfulness -- they were written in the 1950s but felt completely fresh. Furthermore, they were books I absolutely needed to read. That’s how I knew I was working with the right agent.

GHG: Let's talk about noir: you’ve mentioned Hammett and Chandler...

JB: I was really unprepared to write a detective novel, so Hammett and Chandler were part of the homework that I assigned to myself, and I fell in love with Chandler’s work in ways that I didn't expect. It’s the voice that draws me back to his novels, and I think that probably shows in the parts of my book presented as case files from the missing detective, Travis Sivart. I read those books but I also watched a lot of film noir. The imagistic style of those films -- everything is cast in long shadows, so much obscured, everything unknown and potentially a threat -- that was something that I tried to work with in the book as well. But often from the outside in, because the main character, Charles Unwin, is a bumbling file clerk. He's not of that world at all. He knows it through these case files that he has been working on for years, but he finds himself dropped into that world and he has to navigate it. That world doesn't know how to handle him either. The criminals don't know who he is or what he's up to, which allows him to slip through where an experienced detective might now. That was one of the pleasures of writing the book: tracing this incongruity between the older, cozy mysteries and the gritty noir mysteries of later decades, and having this character who wants nothing to do with detective work stuck in the midst of it all. Hopefully that allows for a certain perspective whereby each world becomes a little more heightened. I tried to push that as far as possible.

GHG: Is this the first thing you've written with any noir feel?

JB: It was, really. I had written things that were inspired by fairy tale and fable, and to some extent I consider this book to be an extended fable that is disguised as a detective novel. There are the noir trappings, and they're very useful, because it's like having this symbolic order which is recognizable, it's a set of tools and a set of images that can be rearranged and shuffled. But that's very surface stuff for me. As with fairy tales, I think, you have so much going on that's on the surface, it's allsurface -- the substance is what the reader brings to it by interpreting the arrangement of these symbols. I like that kind of play in fiction.

GHG: I always hate to ask the sort of marketplace questions, so we'll do them in a clump. How long did it take you to write?

JB: It took me about four, four and a half years working on the book and then another year to a year and a half revising. I started it my first semester of grad school, finished the first draft, and that was my thesis. And then I rewrote and revised a lot in the year after that.

GHG: Somehow that's comforting. And so you chose noir, quite early on, in a sense, with where you are with your writing. What led to deciding to do that, since you hadn't before?

JB: Well, there were a number of things, and I didn’t really start with it. What came to me first was this organization called the Agency, which was a kind of Orwellian bureaucracy presiding over a number of secrets. But then I thought it would be fun to make it a mystery-solving outfit. So once I did that, and once I realized I had detectives, the noir thing just fell into place. That was a decision based partly on my sense of the genre in film, which I knew better than I knew the books. I watched the Howard Hawks version of The Big Sleepseveral times, as well as films like Gildaand The Big Combo.

But the other part is this file clerk protagonist. He is by nature a fastidious character whose sense of having things in order and classified properly I found compelling as a writer, if only because it’s akin to my process and my way of thinking. So then you pair that with a detective, who of course is also a seeker of some truth, which is what makes detective fiction such a wonderfully useful narrative. And that was the real convergence, when Unwin's need to have things correct both logically and factually matched up with this other darker, more mysterious world, which resists cataloguing and classification. Underlying things is this unsolvable crisis, and that's the lure of the noir, where getting to the truth usually just makes things worse.

GHG: Let's see. It sounds like you came to the detective idea very organically; the work was already in progress and it sort of ended up going that way. At least for me, that's helpful to know. Let's derail into Small Beer. So you started as an intern, you approached them and just said, "Hey, I'd like to intern?" while you were at Amherst. How many years ago?

JB: That would have been in 2004. I started in just the way you described: told them I wanted to volunteer. The office was in their house in Northampton at the time, so I would go there once a week, spend the day working on press releases, or shipping books, or proofreading, and in a few memorable cases retyping books we were putting back into print, but for which no digital file existed. It was a great experience for me because previous to that I had only worked on journals; it was my first time seeing how books were produced. And Kelly and Gavin make books so well, and with such style, so it was a great spot to be. I was very happy to be there and once I had been donating my time for a couple of years, they found a way to take me on as an employee. And since then we've moved the office out of the back of their house and into a nice old mill building loft space in nearby Easthampton, where we can let the books roam.

It was also wonderful to find a kind of haven at Small Beer while going to graduate school, because Small Beer occupies this kind of wonderful niche, as I think of it, between quote unquote literary fiction and quote unquote genre fiction. That was where my sensibilities were leading me as a writer. And as receptive as my teachers and fellow students at UMass were to that kind of genre play, it was really Kelly and Gavin who had been in that world for years, so they knew what I was up to and became important readers and mentors early on.

GHG: Talking about genre; you mentioned finding writers that were lyrical--we talked about Angela Carter and Thomas Ligotti. How about in science fiction? What have you read, what did you read?

JB: I feel like I'm always trying to get caught up on science fiction. In my early days, I veered more towards the fantastic than science fiction. My mom had Tolkien on her bookshelf, and before I could read I remember taking those books down and looking at these bizarre geometric patterns on the covers -- I think they were supposed to be the rings -- and I thought, someday I will be able to read, and this is what I will read. (Laughs.) I loved Peter S. Beagle and I read a lot of Conan comic books. And I had a close friend in junior high school and high school, Shahrul Ladue, who was a voracious reader and who read so much more than I possibly could. He was a great resource for me, because he would give me these condensed versions of almost everything he read. He would tell me what was going on with the latest installment of The Wheel of Time, or with Piers Anthony and Xanth these days.

(Both laughing.)

JB: But we were also reading Ursula Le Guin and Philip K. Dick. And the thing is, I remember reading certain books and stories in school -- Kafka, Poe, Lewis Carroll, and Ray Bradbury of course -- and thinking there's a line that's not being drawn here, between the stuff that I'm reading on my own and the stuff that is coming to me in school. There's a connection here that needs to be made. Then in college I read Angela Carter, Italo Calvino, and Jorge Luis Borges, and the connection became more clear for me. I think an important moment came with the publication of the New Wave Fabulists issue of Conjunctions. It's exciting to see the genre walls being broken down and connections being remade: a tracing back to shared roots, and it has nothing to do with the marketing of something, but rather about literary source and shared concerns.

GHG: You've known you wanted to write from a young age?

JB: I originally wanted to be a filmmaker, but I was writing from a pretty young age. My friends and I used to write skits and perform them, and I was writing a lot of poetry, and then in college I took a writing workshop and realized that that was what I needed to be doing, and I've stuck to writing seriously ever since.

GHG: Your undergrad degree was at Bard, what was your major?

JB: English--they call it Languages and Literature, at Bard College -- with an attached Creative Writing component. I wrote a messy, sprawling kind of Victorian fairy tale novel for my thesis that was inspired in large part by the Christina Rossetti poem "Goblin Market," and that still sits in some deep dark place in my file drawers.

GHG: What's next? You said you have the story in Conjunctions: 52 Betwixt the Between: Impossible Realism. Now what are you going to do with the rest of your life?

JB: I'm trying to decide between a couple of different projects. I'm doing research for one of them. I grew up in Upstate New York, and from a young age I've had the stories of Washington Irving rolling around in my head. I have something that I would really like to do with the Rip Van Winkle story that would be a kind of American historical folk tale. It's something that's been on my mind for a long time. I think I'm a little intimidated by it, because it feels like it would be a big project. But that's something I'm just beginning to work my brain back into. There are other things, too.

GHG: Such as?

JB: Such as the post-apocalyptic Alice's Adventures in Wonderland-on-a-train novel. (Laughs.)

GHG: Did you just come up with that right now?

JB: No, no, I actually do have some notes on that.

GHG: How do you do an apocalypse on a train?

JB: It's already happened, but the train is running, and there may be air pirates--well, I shouldn't actually talk about that too much, but visually I see it as a Miyazaki film. There are a lot of short stories I want to write. I've been gathering little ideas that I haven't been able to give any attention to while finishing and revising the novel. I'm looking forward to doing some shorter pieces.

GHG: This one's a little more complicated. Some would say that coming from the sort of DIY zine culture, even academic writing, getting an MFA, is radically different than the big gears of publishing. You, more than most, had your feet firmly planted ... and jumped into those grinding gears. What was the experience like?

JB: It's been an interesting thing. I wouldn't call it a jump because I do still feel very much in the small press world, and that's where I intend to remain -- most of my brain lives there. When I was starting to realize that I could actually publish this book, and considered smaller presses, I knew that the one I worked for would have been the obvious home for it. But also at that point I desperately wanted the book out of my hands; I had been working with it for so long, the editors at Small Beer had been readers, and I needed a different perspective. I also needed to not be conscious of its production. I do so much in my daily life to make books happen, which is work that I love, but I somehow couldn't imagine being involved in that process with my book anymore. So I did let it go, to some extent. That said, I was pleasantly surprised--and I may be lucky in this regard -- that I found an agent and an editor who were willing to work closely with me and were really smart about what I was up to. The imprint I’m with, The Penguin Press, is a relatively new one, and when I visited their office the first time I was struck by the energy and the sense of camaraderie there. I immediately felt at ease.

But right now we have all these crises in the publishing world, and the small press is going to be even more vital than it has been, and that's where the important things are going to be happening. So I'm trying to keep a foot in each world, and I'd like to think also that the worlds are not as separate as they sometimes seem. My editor at Penguin is a huge fan of Kelly Link's, and he knew Small Beer Press and is a fan of what we do. And I think because of that he better understood what I was up to with my book, and how I would want it to be handled.

GHG: What else do you do? You make beer, don't you?

JB: Oh, no, that's my colleague Michael J. DeLuca at Small Beer. He's an excellent brewer—and writer, for that matter.

GHG: OK. I know less and less about beer every day. What else do you do?

JB: What else do I do ... I drink his beer. (Laughs.) It doesn't seem like there is much else outside of the books that I'm reading or writing or reviewing, most of the time. I play board games--sitting here in the basement of Pandemonium Books is particularly appropriate because for years I played role-playing games and I still love strategy games like Settlers of Catan and Mystery of the Abbey. Have you ever played Mystery of the Abbey? It's kind of like The Name of the Rose: The Board Game. What else? I have a Chihuahua named Milton who demands a lot of attention, and I ride my bicycle.

GHG: Which role-playing games, specifically?

JB: Well, I grew up in the town of Catskill, New York, a place which I loved in many ways, but at least when I was growing up there, certain things were not present. There was one creaky old used bookstore, and it closed at some point, so naturally there were no hobby shops. I’m not even sure where we managed to find the dice we needed. A twenty-sided die was a mythical object then. I remember my parents and I were on vacation in Florida, and I bought, at a dollar store, some old board game called Heroes of Olympus that was supposed to have a twenty-sided die in it. But the die was missing.

In any case, my friends and I, though we were aware of gaming as something that was going on somewhere, we didn't have access to any of it: we were geeks in a desert. So we made up our own games, our own worlds, for years. I’m thankful for that now. You asked when I knew I wanted to be a writer, and those games were an important part of that puzzle because there we were making up stories, making up characters. I would spend days inventing imaginary worlds for my friends to inhabit, and the cooperative storytelling process really honed my sense of how to put together a narrative.

GHG: You mentioned comic books earlier.

JB: The first two comics I bought were an issue of Detective Comics starring Batman, and an issue of Conan the Barbarian, and I became devoted to both. I've been thinking a lot about the Batman comics recently, because--and some of my early readers noted this when they were looking at my book--I have a kind of Rogue's Gallery of strange villains. One of them is a former carnival magician, the nefarious biloquist Enoch Hoffmann, who is the nemesis of Detective Travis Sivart. I wasn't aware of it at the time, but looking back I see how important those Batman comics were, especially in the sense of creating these heightened personas. They were so themselves, so thoroughly and sometimes so viciously. It’s a kind of myth-making, and it’s really informed my writing process. Of course a lot of comics writers have gone in and explored the psyches and the subtleties more thoroughly, but in their pure form, those characters are absolute symbols of themselves, and that allows for a kind of storytelling which is more like mythology or fable than anything else.

GHG: And there's a direct correlation between that and role-playing characters, because that tends to be the heightened emotional peaks of the experience that tend to play out.

JB: Right.

GHG: What comics recently?

JB: Recently I’ve really enjoyed Bryan Lee O'Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series. I've also been going back and reading Miyazaki's work--I love his films, and reading the manga of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, for example, has been rewarding. And I did dig up the Conan comics after I saw somewhere that Barack Obama has an impressive Conan collection. It’s comforting to know that our President has a bit of a geek side.

GHG: What are some of the weirder questions you've been asked so far? Or is there anything I should ask?

JB: I need a good weird question. Hit me with something really strange!

(Both laughing.)

GHG: How do your parents feel about your work?

JB: (Laughs.) I think my mom is really happy. She read those cozy British mysteries, and got me to read some Agatha Christie when I was young, so I think she sees that the course I’ve taken can be traced back to her. She’s an amazing storyteller, and from her I learned how to withhold the important pieces of information as long as you can. I still listen to the way she tells a story -- it can become so convoluted, yet she draws it all together in the end. She read my book and--she's a very careful reader -- she noticed a consistency error involving one character’s hat. She’s a tough reader, but proud of course.

GHG: Milton the Chihuahua is named after Milton the writer?

JB: Actually, he was adopted from Louisiana, and he came with the name Milton. At first I tried calling him by a different name--I was going to call him Grendel because he looks like a strange little creature and is kind of gargoyle-esque. But Grendel just didn't stick. I went back to Milton, and realized it was a perfectly respectable name, not only because of the poet but also because he--the Chihuahua--acts a bit like he’s your long-lost eccentric uncle, and I like the idea of Uncle Milton, which is how he's often referred to. Milton found his way into a scene in the novel. He's been in a few pieces of mine, actually. He appears in a short story called "The Other Labyrinth" which was in a Datlow/Windling anthology for young adults, The Coyote Road. One of the really satisfying things about publishing that story was that Charles Vess did an illustration for it, and I love Charles Vess's work. I had described Milton clearly enough, I guess, that his drawing of the dog in the story looks pretty much like my dog. It’s hanging on my wall now.

GHG: What other fantasy writers in the past few years, since Amherst, have you enjoyed?

JB: Just recently I've been reading Gene Wolfe, and I'm absolutely enthralled by his work. I've been reading his short stories, and I'm now preparing to get into the novels. I read a section from Wizard or Knight, one of those two books -- I think it's a diptych -- and my first impression of that was of Beckett writing epic fantasy. So I'm looking forward to reading more of his stuff.

GHG: It was turned in as one book, and they forced him to split it.

JB: Oh, is that right? Interesting.

GHG: And I've only read the first half, so I feel like it's their fault that I only got my hands on half of it. Needs to be rectified, at least on my end. And you've mentioned some writers, I'll just list them off: Borges, Calvino, Slattery...

JB: Yes, Liberation I thought was such a wonderful novel. Smart politically, and in its storytelling. I think Brian Slattery has the ability to take an idea and pack it so full -- he stretches things to their utmost in a way that is absolutely compelling. It's a book that's spilling over with ideas, just dizzyingly impressive. Calvino -- that’s going much further back—became important to me not only for the ways he worked from fable and folk tale, but also for his sentences. The clarity and precision of Calvino's writing is something I admire deeply. That, and the fact that he maintains a sense of levity at the same time. His Six Memos for the Next Millennium is the closest thing I have to a guidebook for writing.

GHG: Five speeches and one memo. Yeah, I had a workshop with Rikki Ducornet inspired by Six Memos.

JB: I loved her story collection, which I read around the same time.

GHG: Three short story collections that you would love to press into people's hands. That you think people should read?

JB: There are so many that I’d like to recommend. I could easily pick three just from the Small Beer list. But if I’m trying not to seem too biased? The Voice Imitator by Thomas Bernhard, Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino, The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter. But those are slightly older books; how about I add in three more recent collections? Farewell Navigator by Leni Zumas, Black Juice by Margo Lanagan, and The Baum Plan for Financial Independence by John Kessel. Sorry, that last one is a Small Beer book. I cheated.

GHG: Thank you for doing this, Jedediah.

21 May 2009

The Jewel-Hinged Jaw Now Available!

I haven't seen a copy yet, but the new edition of Samuel Delany's The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction, for which I wrote the introduction, seems to now be shipping from all of the various online booksellers. Thus, you can buy it from...

An independent bookstore near you!


Wesleyan University Press!


Somewhere else!

I'll be posting some out-takes from my introduction to the book here within the next week.

20 May 2009

Middlebury College to Kill New England Review

According to Inside Higher Ed, Middlebury College has announced that it will pull funding from The New England Review by 2011 "if the publication doesn't become self-supporting."

This hits home for me in a few ways -- NER was one of the first lit mags I ever read, because at the time I became interested in such things, the local college library subscribed (and still does). As a teenager, I attended the Bread Loaf Young Writers' Conference, met the managing editor, and got her to sign a copy of the magazine for me (for a while, NER was known as The New England Review & Bread Loaf Quarterly, and I still tend to think of it as NER/BLQ). Later, I attended the adult version of Bread Loaf, and though NER's official relationship with the conference was less by then, many of its staff members still attended, as well as numerous writers it had published.

NER was also one of the earliest supporters of Best American Fantasy, and I'm thrilled that BAF 3 will be reprinting a story they first published (no, I still can't release the list of stories -- we're still trying to get rights to a couple).

Most literary journals survive either through institutional support or from major donors. Some people have argued that literary journals are outmoded, useless, filled with mediocre writing, etc. Some are. But not NER -- it's one of the great ones. Its mix of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction is among the best and most diverse in this country.

I hope that whoever is in charge of this decision at Middlebury will reconsider; if they don't, I hope NER is able to find a new home that is worthy of it.

18 May 2009

"Hackers Can Sidejack Cookies" by Heather McHugh

I've long been fond of Heather McHugh's poetry, and have even longer been fond of collage-type poems, so I was particularly delighted to read her collage-poem of cyberspeak, "Hackers Can Sidejack Cookies" in a recent issue of The New Yorker:
A beige toaster is a maggotbox.
A bit bucket is a data sink.
Farkled is a synonym for hosed.
Flamage is a weenie problem.
That's just the first stanza. I was hooked right from there, but once it continued to "In MUDs one acknowledges/ a bonk with an oif./ (There’s a cosmic bonk/oif balance.)" I was totally in thrall -- the sky turning to the color of a screaming live TV wouldn't have kept me from continuing to read. The ending achieves perfection: both hilarious and somehow, strangely, ineffably ... sad.

I probably especially enjoyed the poem because I actually understand some of the terminology -- for instance, the title makes perfect sense to me, and the last lines evoke emotion not only because their rhythm is particularly well constructed (collaged), but because they make me remember books I read years ago by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling and Rudy Rucker, who, after all, wrote a novel called Wetware.

Now I just wish I had a time machine so I could go plant the poem in an issue of Omni or Asimov's in the early '80s...

(If you need a glossary, there's a handy start to one here.)

16 May 2009

New Hampshire Nears Equality

In January of 2008, civil unions for same-sex couples became law in my home state of New Hampshire. This was a wonderful advance for us, and I had friends and close family members who were civilly unified. Now, it looks like we're about to take the next step toward full equality. From Governor Lynch's press release yesterday:
This morning, I met with House and Senate leaders, and the sponsors of this legislation, and gave them language that will provide additional protections to religious institutions.

This new language will provide the strongest and clearest protections for religious institutions and associations, and for the individuals working with such institutions.
It will make clear that they cannot be forced to act in ways that violate their deeply held religious principles.

If the legislature passes this language, I will sign the same-sex marriage bill into law. If the legislature doesn’t pass these provisions, I will veto it.

We can and must treat both same-sex couples and people of certain religious traditions with respect and dignity.

I believe this proposed language will accomplish both of these goals and I urge the legislature to pass it. [emphasis added]
The additions the governor has proposed to the bill are pretty specific, mostly aimed at giving churches the freedom not to participate in marriage ceremonies, and generally unobjectionable. There's some discussion of the language at the Blue Hampshire blog, with mixed feelings and concerns among the commenters, but I can't imagine any of our legislators think the language is worth fighting a veto for, so I expect the legislature will pass the additions without any problem.

The Concord Monitor summed things up well in an editorial:

Assuming legislative leaders can rally yet another positive vote, gay couples and families will no longer be treated as second-class citizens by New Hampshire law. That's not true of federal statutes, of course, but the growing number of states and courts to come to this conclusion will surely get Washington's attention.

Even if he hadn't wanted to veto the gay marriage bill, Lynch could have let it become law without his signature. Instead, he has chosen to get out front. History will surely show that he was on the side of justice. He has made a powerful statement in support of individual liberties and nondiscrimination.

Thank you, Governor.

14 May 2009

George Steiner at The New Yorker

The front flap of George Steiner at The New Yorker, published as a lovely paperback by New Directions earlier this year, claims that the book "collects fifty-three of his fascinating and wide-ranging essays from the more than one hundred and thirty he has contributed to the magazine." This is an error. The essays are certainly fascinating and wide-ranging, but there are only twenty-eight of them. Perhaps Robert Boyers, the editor, has selected another twenty-five for a later volume. We can certainly hope so.

Subscribers to The New Yorker have access to all of Steiner's essays, though the New Yorker's database is not the equal of, for instance, the database available of Harper's subscribers, and so browsing Steiner's contributions is cumbersome without the guide handily provided as an appendix to George Steiner at the New Yorker.

I've been reading and grading final papers and exams for the past week, and in amidst that I saved the last vestiges of my mind by reading Steiner, a writer I've binged on in the past, but hadn't read in a few years. The New Directions collection proved to be a delightful way to revisit his work.

It surprises me that I like Steiner's writings as much as I do -- he is an avowed devotee of, primarily, the classics of European literature; he has shown mostly contempt for the methods that have come to be called literary theory and cultural studies; he's particularly interested in Greek and Roman languages and mythologies. I, meanwhile, spend about half my reading time with popular fiction; I'm rather fond, depending on my mood, of such writers as Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault and am in general sympathy with some of the tendencies within what gets labelled as New Historicism and Queer Theory; I have very little interest in Greek and Roman history or literature and even less interest in mythology. Additionally, I am fluent only with English, while Steiner's second book, The Death of Tragedy, begins by noting that "All translations from French, German, and Italian are by the author" and one of Steiner's best-known works is After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation. He is not I.

There is enough poly in the math of Steiner, though, that some of his passions are ones I share -- for much of Modernism in its various forms and modes, for Shakespeare and the Russians and Kafka and Beckett and Celan and Borges, for the ethics of language and literature in an age of atrocity. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, Steiner is a marvelous writer. His sentences and paragraphs are rich not only with ideas and information, but music.

George Steiner at the New Yorker provides a good general overview of Steiner's primary obsessions and themes over the years, making it a fine companion to, especially, such previous works as Errata: An Examined Life and My Unwritten Books (also from New Directions, and adorned with one of my favorite covers of recent years). There are essays on Beckett, Borges, Brecht, Bertrand Russell, Noam Chomsky, Simone Weil, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Walter Benjamin, and Albert Speer. There are surprises, too: one of the most impressive and elegant essays is the first, "The Cleric of Treason", about Anthony Blunt, espionage, homosexuality, and scholarship. There are insightful pieces on 1984 and 1984, on Graham Greene, on Thomas Bernhard, on the OED, and on chess. Perhaps most surprising of all, there is a basically positive review of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

One of the critics Steiner most reminds me of is Guy Davenport -- their erudition is similar, and there is much overlap in their interests. George Steiner at the New Yorker contains an essay on Davenport where Steiner, after praising numerous sentences, writes, "There would be no harm in simply using the remainder of this review to make a mosaic and montage of quotes." The same is true for a review of this collection. Consider all that is packed and unpacked in this opening paragraph to a review of a biography of Anton Webern:
There is a great book to be written. It would show that the twentieth century as we have lived it in the West is, in essential ways, an Austro-Hungarian product and export. We conduct our inward lives in or in conflict with a landscape mapped by Freud and his disciples and dissenters. Our philosophy and the central place we assign to language in the study of human thought derive from Wittgenstein and the Vienna school of logical positivism. The novel after Joyce is, in the main, divided between the two poles of introspective narration and lyric experiment defined by Musil and by Broch. Our music follows two great currents: that of Bruckner, Mahler, and Bartók on the one hand; that of Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern on the other. Though the role of Paris was, of course, vital, it is now increasingly clear that certain sources of aesthetic modernism, from Art Deco to Action painting, can be found in the Viennese Jugendstil and in Austrian Expressionism. The functionalist, antiseptic ideals so prominent in today's architecture were predicted in the work of Adolf Loos. Political-social satire in London and New York, the sick joke, the conviction that the language of those who govern us is a poisonous smoke screen echo the genius of Karl Kraus. Ernst Mach had a profound influence on the development of Einstein's thinking. The logic and sociology of the natural sciences cannot be formulated without reference to Karl Popper. And where shall we place the manifold effects of Schumpeter, Hayek, von Neumann? One could prolong the roll call.
A reader who has encountered that paragraph and been intrigued will find ideas from it scattered and blooming throughout Steiner's oeuvre in fascinating ways -- the essay on Kraus and Thomas Bernhard in this book, the material about his Viennese parents and Judaism in Errata, the essay "A Kind of Survivor" in Language and Silence. Other connections pop up throughout many of the other pieces in the collection -- "The Tongues of Man" (from 1969, about Noam Chomsky's linguistics) points toward After Babel and a 1974 essay in On Difficulty, "Whorf, Chomsky, and the Student of Literature". Et cetera, et cetera.

Most of the reviews collected here are at least generally positive about their subjects, but Boyers has included two sharply critical pieces, and they're valuable not just because they are, in my opinion, basically correct in their criticisms, but also because they help give some context to Steiner's praises and passions -- to understand why a critic likes one thing, it can be helpful to understand why she or he dislikes something else. Thus, we have Steiner calling John Barth's novel Letters prolix, narcissistic, and "a more or less indigestible classroom soufflé"; and finding little of merit in E.M. Cioran's aphorisms, which he describes as banal, derivative, and predictable:
There is throughout Cioran's jeremiads an ominous facility. It requires no sustained analytic thought, no closeness or clarity of argument to pontificate on the "rottenness," on the "gangrene," of man, and on the terminal cancer of history. The pages on which I have drawn not only are easy to write, they flatter the writer with the tenebrous incense of the oracular. One need only turn to the work of Tocqueville, of Henry Adams, or of Schopenhauer to see the drastic difference. These are masters of a clairvoyant sadness no less comprehensive than Cioran's. Their reading of history is no rosier. But the cases they put are scrupulously argued, not declaimed; they are informed, at each node and articulation of proposal, with a just sense of the complex, contradictory nature of historical evidence. The doubts expressed by those thinkers, the qualifications brought to their own persuasions honor the reader. They call not for numbed assent or complaisant echo but for reexamination and criticism.
Despite his erudition, I don't find Steiner to be a particularly difficult writer to read, especially when he is writing for a general audience, as here. These essays don't feel as incisive as some of Steiner's other works, ones where he has more space to expand his ideas, but that's not entirely a bad thing -- I much prefer this book to such books as Grammars of Creation, where Steiner himself lights up some tenebrous incense of oracularity. His years of teaching, about which he has often written (especially in Lessons of the Masters), have made him a kind of exemplary popularizer of Western culture. It is not in his theories that he is at his strongest, but in his enthusiasms -- his ability to convey his passions. In theorizing about tragedy, for instance, I much prefer Terry Eagleton's Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic, but I still read The Death of Tragedy with interest and even fondness, because the connections Steiner makes are productive and sometimes unique ones -- his comparison of Woyzeck and King Lear is, alone, more than justification for the book still being in print, not because it's necessarily "right" but because it allows us to think about both texts and authors in ways we -- by which I mean I -- would not have otherwise, and thus to pay closer attention to implications and emphases previously invisible and silent. (Similarly, I reject some of the basic premises of Steiner's Tolstoy or Dostoevsky while also realizing that it taught me more than any other book how to appreciate both writers.)

I have no quarrel with Robert Boyers's choices for what to include in George Steiner at the New Yorker, but some of the omissions are unfortunate -- we really would benefit from that lost fifty-three-essay collection. After reading the book, I spent a few days looking at Steiner's other pieces for the New Yorker, and found, just by following some of my own interests, excellent essays on Alexander Herzen (8 Feb. 1969), Samuel Johnson (28 April 1975), Glenn Gould (23 Nov. 1992), and Louis Althusser (21 Feb. 1994). "Closing Time", about fin de siècle Vienna (11 Feb. 1980), would have paired well with the piece on Webern. And three of the pieces I read seemed like real losses. A review of the first volume of Brian Boyd's biography of Nabokov is a particularly thoughtful appraisal both of Nabokov and the biography ("learned hagiography"), but more than that: Steiner wrestles with what are, he says, for him, as someone who doesn't read Russian fluently, unresolveable questions about Nabokov's greatness and the humanity (or lack of it) within his work. Steiner's review of Michael Hamburger's translations of Paul Celan's poems (28 Aug. 1989) would also have been a valuable piece to include, because Celan is particularly essential to many of Steiner's ideas, especially in Language and Silence (but he had not yet read Celan by the time of that book's writing). It's not an extraordinary essay on Celan, nor a particularly outstanding example of Steiner's work, but it's a useful piece in the puzzle of his thought. Finally, the essay that ends the book, on Robert Hutchins and the University of Chicago, is interesting and insightful, but it is not as affecting as similar material in Errata, and it might have been better to end with Steiner's last essay for The New Yorker, a review of Alberto Manguel's A History of Reading titled "Ex Libris" (17 March 1997), although the final paragraph might have been a disturbing one to finish the collection with:

Books do continue to be produced and published in large numbers. Handwritten illuminated manuscripts continued to be produced well after Gutenberg. Periods of transition are difficult to make out. They are also intensely stimulating. One can intuit deep-lying seismic shocks affecting our cultural perceptions of time, of individual death. These will put in question the claims of literature, of written thought, to individual glory, to survival "for all ages." Milton held a good book to be the "lifeblood of a master spirit." Doubtless this precious liquor will continue to flow, but, perhaps, in altogether different channels and test tubes. The boys and girls at their computer keyboards, finding, stumbling onto insights in logic, in fractals, may neither read nor write in any "book sense." Are they illiterate?
As a boy at a computer keyboard, I will simply say here that George Steiner at the New Yorker -- even with twenty-eight essays instead of fifty-three! -- makes me grateful for the bits of my own literacy that have made the book such a pleasure over the past week, and grateful for the greater, and generous, literacy of George Steiner, who continues to make the idea of a literate life itself seem like something to be aspired to more than something ever truly to be attained. We must keep learning, writing, reading.

01 May 2009

The Pilo Family Circus by Will Elliott

I'm not going to post a picture of the cover of Underland Press's edition of Will Elliott's first novel, The Pilo Family Circus, because it disturbs Justine Larbalestier, and I like Justine and don't want to disturb her. (I actually haven't seen the cover in real life; I read the advance copy, which just has text on it.)

Maud Newton offers an efficient and accurate summary of the novel's beginning, and so I am going to steal it outright:
Jamie, a timid everyman with an arts degree who works as a concierge at a Brisbane gentleman’s club and has arranged his bedroom with an eye toward impressing a cocktail waitress he’s never had the nerve to ask out, nearly runs into a psychotic clown with his car after getting off a shift one night. Soon his apartment is trashed, his roommate Steve is vomiting blood, the clown and his buddies are constantly dropping in to make threats, and both Jamie and Steve are told they must pass an audition -- by making the clowns laugh -- within 48 hours, or die.
But that's just the beginning. The majority of the novel's story moves into a wonderfully unsettling circus-world whose relationship to our own world is not clear until the second half of the book, and it is in that first half, where so much is strange and nothing can be expected, that I found myself most engaged with Elliott's story.

At its best, Pilo Family Circus mixes dark humor and darker horror without diluting either -- a difficult balancing act for even the best writers. It is not, on the whole, a funny book, but the vision of the universe that it offers, despite the nastiness of certain events, is one that could be said to be comic at heart, because it pretty much lets humanity off the hook for most of the evil of the last millennium or two. It's a vaguely Old Testament allegory without any hint of original sin.

But all of that is in the second half of the book, which solves the mysteries and ties up the loose ends. To some extent, I wish I hadn't actually read past the first 150 pages or so. Mysteries are more menacing, more deeply affecting when their meanings are still open to different possibilities. I'm the sort of reader who tends to find solutions disappointing. Much of the second half of Pilo Family Circus is spent connecting dots and painting a rather bland eschatology, though there are a couple tremendously effective images and paragraphs among it all, but nothing to compare with the effect of the disturbances of reality and comfort throughout the first half.

Aside from one particularly annoying tick -- a tick that occurs almost entirely in the first half, and thus makes it even more annoying for First-Half-Loving me -- the writing throughout Pilo is sharp and straightforward; Elliott has, for the most part, a good sense for details that will evoke his scenes without slowing down their pacing. I often found myself reading just a few more pages than I had intended to, because I was caught up in the story, enjoying its unpredictable turns, its odd characters, and the malevolent current beneath the ever-stranger surface waters.

The tick I alluded to is one of point of view. Though for the most part we stay in one point of view throughout the novel, now and then it shifts briefly to another. The shifts didn't seem particularly necessary to me, and they diluted the story's intensity, but they aren't clumsy or overly annoying. The problem lies with the narrator's omniscience in, especially, the earlier pages -- an omniscience that reveals itself only at the ends of scenes and chapters, usually for just a sentence, for instance the end of the second chapter: "Unbeknown to him, these were the last eight hours of peace he would have for quite some time." Cue the orchestra: "BUM BUM BUMMMMMM!"

It's a cheap trick. It signals that the writer doesn't trust the narrative's inherent momentum. It's a lazy way to get people to turn the pages. I did turn the pages, but I would have without such limp ploys, because the narrative has plenty of inherent momentum. Such tactics are particularly annoying in interesting, relatively well-written novels such as Pilo Family Circus because they are so obviously unnecessary.

If I'm focusing so much on things I didn't like about Will Elliott's novel, it's entirely the result of disappointment -- this is often a damn good book, and what would be minor and perhaps even invisible flaws in lesser books are, in better books, nagging, obnoxious itches.

But they are itches, not cancers. This is simply the best malevolent clown novel I've read, and I have, yes, read a few, though I'm sure there are plenty I haven't encountered. (I thought Tim Curry was just about the only good thing in the film of It, or the book for that matter.) American clowns can be pretty scary, after all. I mentioned Pilo to a friend of mine who used to be a professional clown and studied at the Dell'Arte School, and he said he thought part of the fear comes from American clowns being so heavily covered in make-up and, more importantly, their mental/behavioral age being that of an 8- or 10-year-old, as opposed to the younger age of the classic European clowns.

I have no idea how much water or greasepaint such a theory holds, but I do know two things: There are plenty of Evil Clowns, and Will Elliott has done a fine job of adding to their numbers.