28 September 2009

Plot, Plot, Plot

I probably achieve utter absurdity with my new Strange Horizons column, "A Story About Plot", wherein, like an awkward and amateur trapeze artist who has decided the key to success is to not believe in gravity, I try to link John Grisham, Nora Roberts, Aristotle, Shklovsky, and Peter Straub. The whole thing is, I expect, more a sign of my inevitable insanity than anything else.

27 September 2009

Ghost Stories

Jeff Ford is looking for recommendations of ghost stories:
My students are presently writing ghost stories. I want to make a list of 10 of the greatest ghost stories for them to check out. What I'm looking for is your absolute favorite one (short story) -- what you believe to be the best ghost story ever written. If you have a suggestion, please post it. No need to mention "The Turn of the Screw" by James -- that's already on the list. For my very favorite, I'm torn between "The Return of Imray" by Kipling and "The Hell Screen" by Akutagawa.
I chimed in with various folks recommending the work of Robert Aickman, a writer I had encountered some years back when I first got a copy of The Dark Descent, but I wasn't a sophisticated enough reader yet to understand his tales, so thought they were pointless and boring. Returning to him this past year, I suddenly discovered he was much more fascinating than I had noticed before, and I dug through various old paperbacks and magazine back issues I had in search of his stories, then found inexpensive used copies of Cold Hand in Mine, Painted Devils, and Night Voices (the latter I got really lucky with after searching the Internet for months for a copy for under $30). Inevitably, some of the stories don't do anything for me, but when I manage to connect with one -- which is more often than not -- the effect is astounding. "The Stains" is my current favorite, one of the most disturbing stories I know, its power in some ways akin to the effect certain of Christopher Priest's novels have on me.

As Jeff says in one of his replies, it would be nice if a publisher in the U.S. would release a book or two of Aickman's work. (In the U.K., there are some Faber & Faber editions still in print.) Surely somebody at a U.S. small press thinks Aickman is worth keeping in print and introducing to a new generation...?

Oh, and if anybody out there is independently wealthy and wants to buy the Collected Strange Stories for me for my birthday, I won't complain...

26 September 2009

Hybrid Books and the Marketplace of Literary Respectability

I previously mentioned the "Best of the Millennium (So Far)" list at The Millions, and Andrew Seal posted some ruminations on why the results were what they were. In the comments to his post, there's some interesting discussion, well worth reading, but one paragraph of Seal's original remarks does not seem, so far, to have been discussed, and I think it's among the most interesting of his observations, so I'm posting it here to see if anybody wants to say anything. I haven't thought too much about it, so am not proposing agreement or disagreement, just that I think it's an interesting observation about how the value of fiction is constructed in the U.S. especially (since most of the panelists are U.S.-based):
The writer-heaviness [of the panelists] also, I think, accounts for why so many of the works included are of the hybrid variety—"literary fiction" that cleverly incorporate genre (SFF, thriller) elements—while there are so few (actually none) books which are actually categorized as genre fiction. Writers who practice this boundary-crossing (while keeping a strong "literary fiction" audience) are simply the most empowering models for aspirant writers: an ambitious young writer would be a fool not to like them. These hybrid books suggest the extent of a writer's powers (crossing or playing with genre boundaries is assumed to be a proof of the writer's talent and imagination) while also instructing on how to rein that power in before falling all the way into genre. "You can play with reality," these books say, "and if you do it like me, you can still be shelved in a respectable location in Barnes and Noble."

24 September 2009

What is Last Drink Bird Head?

I was there at the beginning.

Yes, soon after Dr. Schaller (my favorite mad scientist) captured the bird, I blindly selected one of my favorite tommy guns and slaughtered the creature with panache.  I gutted it with my teeth.  I deconstructed it with a gulletful of Derrida.  I chugged a shot of ennui and belched sentences of purple bile into the airspace of downed jetliners.  I wouldn't call it a beautiful sight, but it was what I had.

Jeff VanderMeer called me a "smart ass", but I was used to that.  He'd called me worse ("cretinous wombat", "illiterate dirigible", "barbaric yawp", "Dick Cheney").

It all led to a chain reaction of words, words, words.

And now those words have been packaged and frozen with flash, waiting for you to take them out of the freezer and stick them in the microwave of your soul.

All for charity.

Go now, my minions.  Pre your order.  Feed the Wyrm and its whimsical Ministry.  Bring back souvenirs and relics and tchotchkes of the damned.  You're doing something good for the world.  Tell your friends.  They'll never believe you, but you're used to that, ever since the UFO and the sasquatch and the death panels.

The Bird Head took his last drink and I no longer have any tommy guns.  But why should that stop you?  There are mad scientists and realpolitiking consiglieri who claim sovereignty over the rest of us, but you -- you're free.  Suck in your gut.  Join the abjection.  Flay your dreams.

Remember: it's all for charity.  All the children who don't learn to read, I'm sending them to you.  It's time to ask yourself: Do you really want that weight to rend the fabric of the last vestiges of your conscience, punk?

Do it for the Bird Head.  One day, you, too, will take your last drink.  But that day is not today.  Go now, so you can say you did one good deed in your life.

Best of the Millennium!

The Millions polled a bunch of writers to come up with a fun list of really good books:
It’s a bit early, of course, to pass definitive judgment on the literary legacy of the ’00s, or how it stacks up against that of the 1930s, or 1850s. Who knows what will be read 50 years from now? But, with the end of the decade just a few months away, it seemed to us at The Millions a good time to pause and take stock, to call your attention to books worthy of it, and perhaps to begin a conversation.
As of this writing, they haven't revealed the top two, but numbers 3-20 are there, and it's a good list -- I'm amazed, actually, at how many of them I've read all or part of. There's not a book on there I would fight vociferously against including, even if novels like Gilead aren't really to my taste (though I've used that book in a couple of classes, so I wouldn't say I hate it ... I just don't see what it seems everybody else on Earth sees in Marilynne Robinson's writing). I wouldn't arrange the books in the order arranged in the list, and actually would probably not put them in any order other than alphabetical, but that's probably true of all the contributors as well -- it's a survey. I'd also probably choose Kelly Link's Magic for Beginners over Stranger Things Happen only because "Lull" and "Stone Animals" are my favorite of Kelly's stories.

Scott Esposito has posted some interesting thoughts on the choices, and I'm sure other people have as well.

I usually can't resist lists, but if I had been asked to "name up to five books available in English with an original-language publication date no earlier than Jan. 1, 2000", I have no sure idea what I would have named. I probably would have tried for some that might otherwise not get much mention because of the various voters' lack of familiarity with them -- books, for instance, by guys named Jeff (Shriek, The Empire of Ice Cream).

Or maybe I would have gone with books that always come to my mind when I think of recent fiction that has particularly impressed me (Oh Pure & Radiant Heart, People of Paper, Octavian Nothing 1, Dark Reflections [this latter book being one that is more impressive every time I return to it -- true of the others, as well, but Dark Reflections is one that it really took me multiple reads to fully appreciate]).

Or, well, I don't know.

I just looked up M. John Harrison's Light and Things That Never Happen, the publication dates of which I couldn't remember, and they do qualify (both 2002), so one of them at least should certainly be on the list. And probably a few things I've forgotten but will remember seconds after publishing this post.

But if you're looking for some good, serious reading, you could do a lot worse than to try out the books on The Millions list.

Update (9/26/09): And the winner is ... The Corrections. Huh. Well, it's a survey, and inevitably the item most common to various lists will be safe, solid, and underwhelming.

19 September 2009

Radio Play: The Designated Mourner

First, obviously, I ate the cake. And then I grabbed some matches which sat nearby me, and I glanced around, and I lit the bit of paper. "I am the designated mourner," I said.

The bit of paper wasn't very big, but it burned rather slowly, because of the cake crumbs. I thought I heard John Donne crying into a handkerchief as he fell through the floor -- plummeting fast through the earth on his way to Hell. He name, once said by so many to be "immortal," would not be remembered, it turned out. The rememberers were gone, except for me, and I was forgetting: forgetting his name, forgetting him, and forgetting all the ones who remembered him.
I'm working on an essay for Rain Taxi about the plays and essays of Wallace Shawn (in my opinion, one of the great writers of our time), and via a link in this profile/interview, I discovered that WNYC produced an uncensored radio version of Shawn's greatest play, The Designated Mourner, in 2002, and that that radio version is available as streaming audio here on the intertubes.

And we're not talking just any radio version -- this one is done under the direction of Andre Gregory using the cast of his 2000 production: Wallace Shawn, Shawn's longtime companion Deborah Eisenberg (herself among the greatest short story writers alive), and the excellent Larry Pine (best known to me for his magnificent performance as Dr. Astrov in Gregory's Uncle Vanya, filmed by Louis Malle as Vanya on 42nd Street, in which Shawn played Vanya). The Gregory production of the play is, in some circles at least, legendary, especially since it seemed impossible to get tickets if you were mortal (yes, I tried, and, being mortal, failed). Tickets were especially difficult to get because the play was performed for an intimate audience -- I've heard there were chairs for about 30 people -- and the run was not particularly long.

So huge kudos to WNYC for the radio version. It's different in tone and rhythm from the original 1996 production, directed and later filmed by David Hare, and Shawn is not as varied and compelling a performer as Mike Nichols was in the lead role of Jack, but Eisenberg gives a vastly more interesting performance than Miranda Richardson and Pine is different from but at least the equal to David de Keyser. The voices and deliveries of Shawn, Eisenberg, and Pine are more noticeably balanced in Gregory's version of the plan than in Hare's -- Shawn performs the lines with stagy deliberation in his famous syrupy, high-pitched voice; Eisenberg's voice is more ethereal, distanced, portentous, like a voice in a memory or a dream; Pine is the only one who sounds at least marginally ordinary and human, which is particularly ironic given how Jack portrays Howard as such a disconnected elitist. It's a more coherent and equitable production than Hare's (the film, at least), where Mike Nichols gave such an astounding performance that the other actors struggled to keep up with him.

Shawn's plays from Aunt Dan & Lemon on have contained more monologues than dialogue (and The Fever is entirely a monologue), and none rely on complex sets, so they are well served as radio plays. The Designated Mourner especially so; it burrows into your mind and imagination.

By the way, Grasses of a Thousand Colors, Shawn's new play -- his first since The Designated Mourner -- is strange and fascinating, in many ways a culmination of the themes and motifs he's been playing with for his entire career. It begins as a kind of science fiction story about a man whose invention ruins the food supply of the world, then it becomes an explicitly sexual, utterly surreal, and pretty dark riff on fairy tales (especially "The White Cat") before ending up as an enigmatic and oddly affecting amalgam of both. If Robert Aickman and K.W. Jeter got together to write a play, it might have turned out something like this.

15 September 2009

Homer, Sade, and Rob Zombie

Mario the Epicurean:
What saves Homer, Sade and Rob Zombie, what makes their work seem somehow less virulent to me nowadays than many ostensibly humanist manifestos, is the utter lack of righteousness about their ethical visions. Zombie even mocks populist righteousness in House of 1000 Corpses when Captain Spaulding seems about to fly off the handle in a proto-teabag populist rage at the middle-class kids because they're condescending to his country ways. But he laughs it off—he doesn't torture and kill because it's the "right" thing to do, because his megachurch or his writing-studies-for-social justice class taught him to hate metropolitan elites, he tortures and kills because he likes it, because as with spiders and webs and Milton and poems it's in his nature to do so, and I defy anyone with a shred of indecency left in her not to give a little cheer when Tiny kills the sheriff in The Devil's Rejects. I'm not about to kill anybody—you know, I morally disapprove of all violence—but then it's not like the Hebrew Bible writers, Rousseau and Stephen Speilberg are pacifists anymore than their opposite-number contemporaries listed above. It's only that they offer a license to kill based on a feeling of self-righteous victimhood that picks and licks and loves its wound.

Lev Grossman: Good Sport

A couple weeks ago, Lev Grossman wrote an essay for The Wall Street Journal and I was in a bad mood that day (having choked on all the butt-ends of my days and ways) and so I decided to take issue with Mr. Grossman's representation of literary modernism. I know my pet peeve against people using the term "modernism" in certain ways borders on the irrational and is at best a bit of lit geekery, but so it goes. I certainly didn't expect a lot of notice. But there was a lot of notice, and various people started piling up either to pummel Mr. Grossman's essay or to celebrate it. There was, at least from the perspective of a lit geek like me, some fascinating discussion in amidst the ever-vociferous noise of internet brouhahahahahas.

I know Mr. Grossman considered some of what I said to be too ad hominem, and though I may not feel that it was too ad hominem, he's absolutely right that, out of disappointment that someone of his educational background, broad reading experience, and obvious intelligence would write such sentences as he wrote, I expressed my argument not only with his ideas, but with him. I really just thought he was having a temporary delusion and my words were (though it was perhaps not obvious) fueled by an optimistic belief that he could recover. Having suffered plenty of delusions in my own time -- delusions of grandeur, of omnipotence, of eloquence, of relevance, of thrift -- I am sometimes too ready to help other people recover from theirs....

Meanwhile, Mr. Grossman seems to have survived my attack on his windmill, and done so in good humor -- Jeff VanderMeer asked him a series of immensely serious questions, and got immensely serious responses. It's a perfect coda to the conversation.

13 September 2009

Basic Black

Last night I stumbled onto a great program on Boston's public tv station WGBH, "Basic Black", where host Kim McLarin talked for half an hour with Tavis Smiley and Cornel West about life in the Obama era (I was particularly taken with West's suggestion that Obama himself is "reluctant to step into the Age of Obama" and with the discussion of the meaning and implications of the terms "black" and "negro".)  The entire show is available as a streaming video.  (I've only recently discovered my tv gets WGBH, so I'm sure some regular viewers are thinking, "What, Cheney, have you been living under a rock?!"  Until a year ago, I hadn't ever owned a tv, so, well, yes...)

The website includes past shows as video or audio podcasts, and scrolling through the archives, I see lots of programs I'll be looking at soon, because the topics and guest lists are of the sort that are rare on U.S. television: thoughtful conversations with artists and intellectuals.  A roundtable on black theatre in Boston.  Poets Elizabeth Alexander and Major Jackson.  The great dancer Bill T. Jones.  Anna Deavere Smith.  Sweet Honey in the Rock.  Patricia Williams.  Wole Soyinka.

And lots more.

09 September 2009

Dear Library of America...

Oh, Library of America, you know I love you. You have parted me and my money more times than I would care to admit. I love you for your Bowles and your Lovecraft and Du Bois and Thoreau and Douglass, your O'Connor and Baldwin, your Ashbery and Crane, your Porter and Powell, your Singer and Singer and Singer, your movie critics and poetries, your civil rights and revolution. I am currently enraptured with your Carver. I am eagerly (too weak a word!) awaiting your Fantastic Tales. And I don't say this to just anyone, but I cherish your Dick.

I love other things, too, Library of America. (I am polyamorous in my bibliophilia.) I love, for instance, the short stories of Donald Barthelme. And I love the recent biography of Donald Barthelme, Hiding Man by Tracy Daugherty.

So dearest Library of America, imagine what I felt when I read these words from an interview with Mr. Daugherty:
I believe there was some talk, years ago, of trying to get a Library of America collection of Don's fiction into print -- chronologically, the way it first appeared. My understanding is that Edward Hirsch and Susan Sontag tried to make this happen, and I'm not sure why it didn't go forward.
Ohhhh, Library of America! Howl! Moan! It's been a few years now since last I suggested anything to you, and while you didn't take up my brilliant recommendations then, perhaps now you will hear my cry -- don't abandon Barthelme! You've done great things for Carver and Cheever, who both surely deserved them, and who brought wonders to the American short story, but Barthelme is the perfect addition to that crew, a man who helped bring the short story in the U.S. toward new forms and frontiers, and who made us laugh while doing so.

Don't make me resort to threats, Library of America. Remember what happened to Colby.

A Conversation with Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.

Rain Taxi has now posted my interview with Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., wherein I ask him lots of questions about science fiction, the academy, postcolonialism, Marxism, aesthetic criticism vs. other criticisms, and snails.

(Actually, I'm lying. I didn't ask him about snails.)

I first made a note to remember Istvan's name when I encountered his essay "Science Fiction and Empire", which I thought was fascinating and even, dare I say it, scintillating. When I read Adam Roberts's review of his book The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction, I knew I needed to read it. So I did. And then I had questions. Thus, an interview was born...

Here's some of what Istvan has to say about his book:
I wanted to do a lot of things writing The Seven Beauties, and they kept changing—which probably shows up in the zig-zag way the book is written. My first and overriding goal was to write something useful and stimulating for students and younger scholars of SF. That meant producing a sort of textbook from hell—the opposite of a normal class text. I mainly wanted to generate problems and suggestions that folks interested in studying SF could develop, critique, or just run away with. Early on, my model was the mathematician Paul Erdös, who is known not so much for the originality of his solutions as for the questions he posed. He made a career of formulating intriguing problems that would attract younger mathematicians to solve. So Seven Beauties is supposed to be a sort of compendium of interesting problems. In some cases I stated things more assertively that even I believed them to be, since some folks don’t get inspired unless they feel provoked.

But I also wanted to place SF in a larger historical and cultural context, and specifically an artistic one. I’m trained in comparative literature, and I’m committed to literature as a tradition. There has been a lot of impressive scholarship on SF from cultural-studies perspectives. The main way that students and scholars look at the genre now is in terms of popular culture, gender/race/sexual identity/class critique, postcolonialism, vestiges of New Left Marxism, and the postmodernist notion that SF and contemporary social mythologies are converging. I can’t add much to that rich and diverse work, and fortunately I don’t have to. What I wanted to do was to treat the science-fictional imagination as if it were not just a symptom of some other, more basic social process, but something that audiences consider valuable on its own terms. To find out what those terms are I reversed the normal way of looking at SF, sort of like a Magic Eye picture, so that science-fictionality would be my context, and the historical-contextual forces would be constructed by it. That’s actually a rather Old School approach, which is why I wrote in my intro that the book could be read as steampunk criticism. My premise is that SF has been a powerful imaginative force influencing the social imagination of the past long century.
For more about Istvan, see his own webpage.

03 September 2009

Hal Duncan: Columnist of Sodom

Hal Duncan, known to some as The Slayer of Shibboleths, to others as The Scribe of the Book of All Hours, to others as The Notetaker of the Geek Show, and to still others as THE....Sodomite Hal Duncan -- this (super)man is now writing a regular column for Fantasy Book Spot, "Notes from New Sodom".

In his first column, Hal does what many of us have done in our early ventures with such things, he digs into definitions (and thus stakes some ground). This is Hal, though, so what he does is really not much like what any of the rest of us have done. It's longer, for one thing. And full of that inimitable, erudite lyricism, that voice, that essence (spunk!) of Hal.

And with this first column of his, he lets me achieve one of my greatest ambitions in life: to provide an epigraph. An epigraph taken from my second column for Strange Horizons, "The Old Equations", a piece I'd pretty much forgotten I'd written, in which I staked out some ground of my own. My view of genre as a term and idea has grown more ... well, frankly, neurotic (in its hesitations and divigations) ... since 2005, and it was fun to reread that piece, in which I had more confidence than I have now. Which is not to say I think "The Old Equations" is wrong, just that were I to write it now I wouldn't write it the way I wrote it then. But I could say that for stuff I wrote yesterday, too...

Anyway, welcome, Hal, to the Hall of Columnists. Long may ye reign, in time and wordcount!

02 September 2009

[Eyes Only]

advance copy of secret history received.

contents being processed and analyzed. will then be buried in container meeting criteria specified by section 5838/67 and guarded by sentries.

if word of secret history should be leaked, follow protocol: deny, deny, deny.

monitor this channel for updates.