29 April 2010

The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner

In fact, in the spiritual world, we change sexes every moment.
--Ralph Waldo Emerson, Representative Men

I object to anything that divides the two sexes ... human development has now reached a point at which sexual difference has become a thing of altogether minor importance.  We make too much of it; we are men and women in the second place, human beings in the first.
--Olive Schreiner to Havelock Ellis, 19 Dec 1884 [quoted in Monsman]
I first tried to read The Story of an African Farm some years ago when I went on a Doris Lessing binge; I hadn't heard of the novel before reading Lessing's praise of it, and what she said intrigued me.  But I went into The Story of an African Farm expecting it to be, well, a story, and it was soon apparent that, for all the book is, it is only "a story" in the loosest sense -- indeed, it's more accurate to say it is a book containing a lot of stories, but even that misses much of what is wonderful and unique in Olive Schreiner's creation.

The next time I thought about reading African Farm was when I first encountered J.M. Coetzee's White Writing, wherein Coetzee seems somewhat dismissive of the book, noting that it is a kind of fantasy because the reader gains almost no sense of how the farm in the novel is able to be sustained.  I then assumed African Farm to be just another Africa-as-exotic-setting novel, something of historical interest perhaps, but not much more than that.

As I was first thinking about putting together a new version of my Outsider course, though, I came upon some references to Schreiner and this novel that piqued my interest and brought me back to it.  I wanted some context to consider the book in, so I grabbed library copies of Olive Schreiner's Fiction: Landscape & Power by Gerald Monsman and Olive Schreiner by Ruth First and Ann Scott.  These were extremely helpful, especially the Monsman, because he provides a valuable analysis of the book's structure, defending it from the many critics who have said that African Farm, whatever its virtues, is a failure as a novel.  Monsman places the book within a tradition of philosophical novels such as those by Walter Pater and Thomas Carlyle, although Schreiner's book is, to my mind at least, more accessible and emotionally affecting than those.  Nonetheless, they are important to mention in any defense of Schreiner, because it's too easy to assume a narrow definition of "the novel" and judge Schreiner a failure against it.  She clearly wasn't trying to create a book to fit that definition.

26 April 2010

Guns, Feminism, Patriarchy, and Me

I have a new column up at Strange Horizons, "Patriarchy Studies".

There was a bunch of stuff I wanted to put into the column, but decided to save most of it for future ones, since this one was having a hard enough time cohering as it was.  And some things might have been good to have there, but seemed distracting -- for instance, I had a long footnote about the complex relationship of Isaac Asimov and feminism, but cut it out because it was tangential to the direction I was trying to go in (suffice it to say, if you're curious about the complexities, be sure to read The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction and The Secret Feminist Cabal).

Mostly, I just wanted to bring Sally Boland's name out to the public beyond our university, because she was awesome.  I knew her at the end of her life, but her influence on me was primarily through the people for whom she was a colleague and mentor, many of whom became my mentors and colleagues.  I have Sally's copy of Adrienne Rich's On Lies, Secrets, and Silence, and it's a book I treasure.

25 April 2010

The Outsider and the Idea of Africa

[This is part of a continuing series of posts on a class I teach at Plymouth State University, "The Outsider".  I am one of many people who teach the course, and each instructor fits their own ideas and interests into a fairly general catalogue description.  All the posts related to this one can be found via the Outsider label.  Eventually, I'll even update the course's website, since it's now completely out of date.]

The last time I blathered on about my ideas for The Outsider, I was still a few weeks away from having to order the books for the class, and so the syllabus was still very much in flux. I hadn't even plotted it out day by day, so I didn't know if I could fit in all the various books I was thinking about fitting in.

After reading my post, the great and glorious Aaron Bady sent me a note, since much of what I was thinking about -- representations of the idea of "Africa" in colonial and then post-colonial fiction -- was stuff he's spent a lot of time studying. I felt a little embarrassed, because he actually knows what he's talking about, and I'm just following yet another of my many obsessions (really, I should rename this blog The Dilettante). But this obsession has been with me for at least a decade, and though there have been years in that time when I've not indulged it, it always comes back, and whenever it does it comes back stronger than before. (Actually, no. The strongest moment was a period of about three days when I was determined to visit and analyze the entire inventory of every bookstore in Nairobi. That was a period of temporary insanity. It began innocently and miraculously, but then...)

Anyway, Aaron made a marvelous suggestion: "What about Tarzan?" Tarzan is something Aaron knows a bit about, and more importantly, he's thought about Tarzan using just the sorts of templates and questions I want to use to think about that iconic guy. Aaron kindly sent me a paper he's working on about the Tarzan image and phenomenon, and I promptly plundered it for references and started burrowing (and Burroughsing ... ugh, sorry) around in the Plymouth State library, the Dartmouth library, Google Books, and, when desperate or particularly intrigued, various used book dealers.

My basic concept of the course is one I soon discovered is discussed in detail in a wonderful book, Artificial Africas: Colonial Images in the Times of Globalization by Ruth Mayer. Or, rather, Mayer writes about some of the ideas I'll be using during the first half of the course: How, for instance, do people who come into the place they (or their authors) think of as Africa then represent that idea of Africa to their audiences? Or, to make it more obvious how the course material and course title go together: What happens when outsiders come in and start telling stories about the place they've come into? Do the stories they tell work to assuage their feelings of outsiderness, or even to reconfigure them as the insiders and the people who are natives as the outsiders? (With a colonialist mentality, is everything outside Europe or the USA? And so no matter where they are, will a European or American always be, or at least assume themselves to be, an insider?) And then, in the second half of the course, we'll turn things around a bit and look at other perspectives -- the empire writing back, to use the familiar postcolonial phrase. Finding ways for the silenced to speak, the erased to be recovered. For the insiders who have been represented as outsiders by colonialism to reclaim their insider status. (Or, I will ask the students eventually, is the binary itself too limiting? What does it hide from us?)

24 April 2010

Happy Birthday, Tor!

Yesterday -- Friday, April 23, 2010 -- Tor Books turned 30.  Irene Gallo celebrated at Tor.com with a marvelous photo gallery of the Tor folks.

On my last visit to New York, Tor editor Liz Gorinsky gave me a tour, which was great fun -- not only because I got to say hi to lots of great people, some of whom I'd only ever met via email or press release, but also because Tor is housed in the Flatiron Building, and the view from some of the offices (and especially the conference room/library) is fabulous.

Tor has published plenty of books by people who've become friends of mine over the years, and the only two professional fiction writers I knew when I was young, Jim Kelly and L.E. Modesitt, were both published by Tor when I first met them.

It seems appropriate, then, that on Monday I'll be discussing a Tor novel with one of my classes -- Brian Slattery's Liberation (in a class that also used another Tor book, The Dark Descent edited by David Hartwell), and so my students -- all of whom are, I'm sure, spending their weekend diligently reading! -- are, without knowing it, wishing Tor a happy birthday themselves...

20 April 2010

Books I'd Be Reading If I Had the Time

I'd intended to read a bunch of new fiction this spring, but then decided to reconfigure some of the classes I'll be teaching in the fall, which meant having to plunge into all sorts of other books (about which I'll be writing here soon, I expect).  I'm loving the research, since it appeals to a bunch of my various obsessions (e.g. how white people represent whiteness and non-whiteness), but it's left me with exactly no time for other reading.  By the summer, I'm hoping to have the research mostly done, and thus expect to be able to freely read all sorts of things, but until then, here are some of the books I'd be reading if I weren't reading other books...*
  •  A Book of Endings by Deborah Biancotti.  Deb very kindly sent me a copy of this collection of her short stories, and I've only had a chance to read a couple so far, which makes me sad, because I very much want to read them all -- not just because I've enjoyed what I've read so far, but because Deb is a great person who deserves the support and enthusiasm of readers.  And she puts up with my silly jokes about Australia being on the bottom of the world.  Because she knows North American boys are silly and ignorant about the fact that they themselves actually live on the bottom of the world.  A Book of Endings has gotten some great reviews, and even the less-than-great reviews have intrigued me -- I'm a big fan of stuff that's tasteless and improbable.  Because really, would you be compelled to read something somebody called "tasteful and probable"?  Not I!  In fact, I hope Deb subtitles her next collection "More Tasteless and Improbable Stories from Deborah Biancotti".  But I hope she doesn't release a new collection too soon, because I need to read this book first...
  • Eddie Signwriter by Adam Schwartzman.  This is a debut novel someone at Patheon sent me, thinking perhaps it would be my sort of thing, and it does indeed look like it could be -- the story of a guy born in Ghana, raised in Botswana, who ends up in Paris with a group of, according to Publisher's Weekly, "African immigrants who congregate at a secret club located in a cellar beneath a flower shop."  They also call it "a surprisingly upbeat treament of human trafficking and illegal immigration" and "gorgeously written".  I'll certainly be taking a look at this one this summer.
  • Life by Gwyneth Jones.  I've been reading around in Helen Merrick's excellent book The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminisms, and Merrick discussion of Life makes it sound like a kind of book I love: "centrally concerned with the language and conception of sciences like biology and the way science underwrites and reflects the sex-gender order".  
  • The Father and the Foreigner by Giancarlo De Cataldo.  I set this book aside when it arrived last year because it's short and the description included words like "mysterious", "dark", and "frightening", all of which are words I tend to gravitate toward.  And I like the publisher, Europa Editions, whose books are always beautifully produced.
  • Tails of Wonder and Imagination edited by Ellen Datlow.  This arrived just before my own cat, and our occasional reviewer, Ms. P. Martha Moog, headed off to the great catnip field in the sky, and I just haven't had the heart to open the book since.
  • The End of the Jews by Adam Mansbach. The back of the book calls this "The story of a family of artists who realize, too late, one elemental truth: Creation's necessary consequence is destruction."  That alone got me to stick the book on the "take a look at this eventually" pile.
  • The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist.  This book is described as "a gripping exploration of a society in the throes of a system geared toward eliminating those who do not contribute by conventional means, in which the 'dispensable' ones are convinced under gentle coercion of the importance of sacrificing for the 'necessary' ones.  It also looks deeply into the nature of the female psyche, at its resilience and creativity under dire conditions."  While the "female psyche" thing sounds a bit essentialist for my tastes, I'm nonetheless intrigued.
  • Who Would Have Thought It? by Maria Ampara Ruiz de Burton.  Not only is this called the "first Mexican-American novel" (I don't have the expertise to know if that claim is accurate), but it's partly set in New England during the Civil War era.  A Mexican-American woman in mid-19th Century New England?  Who, indeed, would have thought it...?
  • Fritz Leiber: Selected Stories edited by Jonathan Strahan and Charles N. Brown. I love some of Leiber's stories -- particularly "Smoke Ghost" and "Space-Time for Springers" -- but haven't read any for a while.  This collection offers a nice opportunity to catch up, and the contents are quite different from the old Best of Fritz Leiber, which was published before a few of his most famous stories had been written.
  • Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin.  The press release for this book addressed me as "Dear Producer", and I was so flattered that the folks at Random House so overestimated my power and influence that I couldn't help but set this book aside for later perusal.  I'm a slave to flattery.  And the story, about the young girl who inspired Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, also seemed worth at least a glance.
  • The Boy Who Couldn't Sleep and Never Had To by DC Pierson.  It was the title that caught my attention with this one.  The press release describes it as "at once a poignant coming-of-age tale and a madcap paranoid conspiracy sci-fi thriller".  I don't much care for coming-of-age tales, but madcap paranoid conspiracy sci-fi thriller can be fun if they actually live up to that label (so often, they're not very madcap, paranoid, or thrilling).
  • The Passage by Justin Cronin.  I'm embarrassed to admit that I first set this aside because I thought Justin Cronin was Jeremy Cronin, and I was really curious to see what a South African Communist poet would write that would get a blurb from Stephen King.  Then I read the publicity materials, and even after I realized I was thinking of Jeremy and not Justin Cronin, I was still interested in how the book was described, so figured it wouldn't hurt me to give it 50 pages and see if I wanted to keep reading.  But then I didn't have time.  Later, later...
  • The Theory of Light and Matter by Andrew Porter.  This is a collection of short stories, and I kept it for two reasons: Porter's story "Azul" was first published in One Story shortly before my own story "Blood" appeared there, and I'm curious to read more of Porter's work.  Also, Kevin Brockmeier gave the book a glowing blurb, and I trust Kevin's taste and enthusiasms, because they've not yet led me wrong.
  • Death in Spring by Marce Rodoreda.  I picked this up in New York last year because I didn't have any of Open Letter's books, and various people I know and trust had recommended them.  This one looked like a particularly strange and evocative story, so I bought it.  And here it is, still waiting for me a year later...
  • The Girl with Glass Feet by Ali Shaw.  A couple of people recommended this book to me, and the premise seemed like it would offer good opportunities for weird resonances, and I like weird resonances.  When I thought I was going to have lots of spring reading time, I requested a copy from the good people at Henry Holt & Co., they kindly sent one on, and then I had no time to read it.  I try hard not to request books I don't have time to read, so now I feel guilty.  Which means I will certainly find time to read it in the future, but the future is not now.
Well, that's quite a list.  If one of you out there could create a way to add an extra ten or twenty hours to every day, I'd really appreciate it!

*Links in this post are once again to Amazon because Book Depository is currently unavailable in North America because the volcanic eruption under the Eyjafjallajoekull glacier has caused supply and distribution problems for them, so they've suspended their website for the moment.  Once things are cleared up, posts here will link to Book Depository again, because it's a wonderful service.

15 April 2010

The Uncanny Familiarity of Mr. Disch

David Auerbach on Thomas M. Disch:
Look at the big social novels of the 1960s. You find conspiracy theories in Pynchon and Mailer, suburban hells in Cheever and Yates and (in its apotheosis) Heller, solipsistic nihilism and self-indulgence in Barth and Wurlitzer, beatnik dropout fantasies in countless other authors. Even Gore Vidal was writing historical novels rather than anything set in the present day.

Disch, though, was ahead of his time. The American heartland of his novels, contemporary or future, now seems eerily prescient. It’s not that these trends weren’t visible in the 60s and 70s, but Disch foresaw their eventual impact in the post-Cold War age that his peers mostly did not. Frequently evoking the American grotesques of Poe and Lovecraft, he brought out the ghastly ignorance that increasingly defines American political life. He exaggerates, but the uncanny familiarity of the caricature is scary.
And some of what got left on the cutting room floor...
I rate Disch above the suburban disenchantments of Yates, Cheever, and Updike because their work was so ineffective as cultural commmentary. It showed no engagement with the greater meaning of these enclaves in the American political environment of the Cold War. Likewise, the capitalist critiques of Gaddis seem way off the mark because they assume a certain amount of rational action on the part of the characters. Who is closer to Ken Lay, J.R. or Grandison Whiting? The best American authors have, I think, understood that America does not lend itself to highbrow cultural theorizing in the way that Germany does, and so inhabit the more gothic and grotesque modes.

13 April 2010

Origin Story

Ed left Sears, Roebuck in August 1908, and the card he sent to Emma from South Bend, Indiana, shortly afterward indicates that he was preparing for some new enterprise or engaged in making contacts or purchases for his partnership with Dentzer. Dated September 15, 1908, the card was addressed to Emma at 197 Park Avenue. It reads: "This isn't a half bad little town. Haven't accomplished much yet. Not even my lunch -- 12:15 p.m." On the same date he sent little Joan a card containing one word: "Google."

--Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Man Who Invented Tarzan by Irwin Porges, Brigham Young University Press, 1975, page 104

11 April 2010

The Naked Prey

Actor, director, and producer Cornel Wilde seems mostly to have been forgotten these days -- indeed, a variation on that statement can be found in most of the notices and reviews of the Criterion Collection DVD of Wilde's 1965 film The Naked Prey, but though that disc was released in 2008, the movie's profile still seems astoundingly, and unjustifiably, low.

Some of the reviews I've glanced at also state that the film is good but "not politically correct", which is at best a lazy thing to say about it. Part of what makes The Naked Prey interesting is that it struggles with conflicting meanings and implications within its representation of colonial and native encounters in 19th century southern Africa. It dutifully includes a checklist of Hollywood clichés about safaris and hunting and "man in the state of nature" (literally, in this case, as the protagonist is known only as Man) and a mythical "Africa" full of "savages". (The trailer condenses the film into nothing but these clichés, naturally.) Yet it is also very much a movie about the indifference of nature to the struggles of human beings and about both the perils and possibilities within encounters between people of vastly different cultures.

It's kind of like Tarzan goes with the Macombers on the Last Safari and ends up in The New World.

03 April 2010


Anthony DiBlasi's movie Dread may be compelling for folks who haven't read the Clive Barker story that inspired it, but anyone who admires the grand guignol audacity of that story will likely be disappointed by the film.

There's plenty to praise in the movie, though, and before I detail why I think Diblasi's screenplay tames the story and saps it of any interesting meaning, I do want to make it clear that my objection is primarily to the screenplay. The cinematography and production design are often excellent, sometimes strikingly so -- every wall in this film seems rich with texture, the colors and lighting are frequently more evocative than anything going on in the plot, and some of the framing of shots is gorgeous (what's in the frame is often grimy or grotesque, fitting the events of the story, but the image composition is nonetheless beautiful). And there's some good gore, too.

The acting isn't as bad as it could be, either, especially given some of the lines the actors have to deal with. Not having seen the Twilight movies, I wasn't familiar with Jackson Rathbone, but he delivers a likeable and sometimes surprising performance, quirky and light, a bit reminiscent of young Johnny Depp. The problem most of the actors face is that the script nearly requires them to seem self-indulgent, like acting students practicing audition monologues.

The problem, yes, is the script.

(Below, I'll be talking about the plot of the movie and story, including the ending. Go away now if you don't like that kind of talk.)

01 April 2010

New Hampshire to Become Rap Mecca

In an attempt to promote racial, ethnic, generational, and aesthetic diversity in a state best known for its rock, the New Hampshire Department of Cultural Resources is devoting $7.50 (half its budget) to an effort that encourages the Granite State's citizens to create what Governor John Lynch called, "That hipping-hopping music, so popular with the young folks nowadays."

Because the indigenous music of New Hampshire is something akin to sea shanties played on kazoos and small accordions, there will be a steep learning curve. But the state's commitment is strong. Van McLeod, Commissioner of Cultural Resources, said, "In honor of the great strides New Hampshire is making toward becoming one of the big playas, I'm officially changing my name to MC Loud, at least for today."

The first product of the state's new initiative takes up the gauntlet thrown down by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys: