22 March 2011


Eric Schaller has been writing occasional SpecTech columns for the Clarion blog for a while now, and his most recent is about "mutations that involve homeotic genes and the monstrous results that can arise". And the results are, indeed, monstrous!

Meanwhile, occasional Schaller collaborator Jeff VanderMeer has released a new book called Monstrous Creatures, full of monstrosities you really don't want to live without. It's been getting monstrously great reviews (including one from Charles Tan that, rather embarrassingly for me when linking to it, starts with my name).

I have, through much effort, managed to secure an interview with VanderMeer about his new book. It was cut a little short, so I can't publish it anywhere other than here, but purely for archiving, here it is:

Written Words on Wordless Ward

I remember when I spoke with Lynd Ward’s two daughters that both Nanda and Robin told me that they constantly asked their father what his wordless books meant and Lynd always replied with the same answer: "It means exactly what you think it means." And that is really the attraction of these books -- we bring so much of our own personal experiences to reading pictures because the language of pictures has, what I like to call, a "private declension" that only each of us can understand -- a secret smirk or a haunting remembrance from our private association to an image.
--David A. Beronä
The release of The Library of America's gorgeous two-volume collection of Lynd Ward's wordless novels has led to some fascinating and thoughtful reviews. I just noticed that Scott Esposito did a quick roundup, and so I thought I'd add to what he'd collected, since I find Ward's work endlessly fascinating.

William T. Vollmann, Bookforum:
What makes a Ward picture Wardian is its intuitive, partially spontaneous quality, which shines through increasingly if you scan the six novels in chronological order. At the beginning they look very much like the woodcuts they are, with all of that medium's chiseled constraint. In time, they come to resemble lithographs. The lines grow more fluid, the shapes more volumetric.

John Lingan, The Quarterly Conversation:
One reason why Ward’s novels are so uniquely powerful and engrossing is that their plots and messages are in perfect alignment with the obvious “battle of wills” that it took to make them. Particularly from Wild Pilgrimage, his third novel, onward, you can nearly see the artist’s triceps tensing to carve the stunning cross-hatch patterns that grant his wordless panels such physical and emotional depth. You can perceive the immense, sustained concentration that it took to imagine entire narratives and a motionless means of animating them, as well as the sweat-inducing balance of physical pressure and painterly delicateness necessary to displace little spools of wood shavings in search of a precise facial expression or shoulder slump.

Steven Heller, The New York Times:
I was a young art director for the Op-Ed page of this newspaper when I first read “Gods’ Man” and “Wild Pilgrimage.” In addition to commissioning illustrations, I sometimes used existing artwork by the likes of Francisco de Goya, Thomas Nast, George Grosz and other strong black-and-white conceptualists. Ward joined their ranks. Every image he made had its own integrity. On at least three occasions I took an engraving from the books and paired it with an Op-Ed article — a perfect marriage of text and image. But this was heresy. Ward’s images were designed to be seen in their original contexts, not forced to illuminate arguments that Ward never heard. For the experience of seeing all his wordless books as they were meant to be read, the Library of America set is essential.

Glen Weldon, NPR:
Ward's metaphors are simple, even stark, and he eagerly and unself-consciously commits to them; his most striking images possess an expansive — and occasionally swoony — operatic vigor. Which is why these novels attain the primal, Manichaean impact they do. Collectively, they exist on the line separating the dramatic from the melodramatic, sentiment from sentimentality.

In his introduction to the books, Art Spiegelman comments on the difficulty of interpreting Ward’s "silent" novels. "Rarely was silent film—a direct catalyst for the wordless block—ever as resolutely mute as the woodcut novel; intertitles and musical accompaniment helped transmit its meanings," he writes. But Ward also had a genius for carving human movement, and watching his characters walk through their story lines is a particular joy of his novels. In "Prelude to a Million Years," an artist wanders through the city before his studio burns down (with him inside); in "Wild Pilgrimage," a worker lives a dream sequence in a series of red-and-white prints.

Sarah Boxer, Slate:
Ward's simultaneous love of books and distrust of language is, I think, what makes him historically important. He's the crucial missing link between the graphic novelists of today, Spiegelman included, and the narrative artists of the past, going back to Frans Masereel, Albrecht Dürer, and the muralists who painted Bible stories on church walls in case people couldn't read. 
There's also a long and fascinating piece on Ward in the latest issue of Harper's, but the online version is currently ensconced behind the paywall, available only to subscribers.

21 March 2011

Of Lexias and Leiber

My latest Strange Horizons column has been posted, this time a celebration of Fritz Leiber's centennary.

I mentioned last week that I needed to come up with a title for my Strange Horizons columns. Through much of last week I was fighting off the worst illness I've had in years, so perhaps the title is simply the product of fever, but nonetheless, now in a less fevered state, I like it: Lexias. It keeps to the pattern of the other columnists (Scores, Diffractions, Intertitles, etc.) in being a single, plural word. And it seems mostly accurate to my project, if you think of the word as Roland Barthes used it in S/Z: "a series of brief, contiguous fragments ... units of reading" (Richard Miller's translation). (For more on Barthes, by the way, this is an interesting site.)

But for my purposes, "lexias" is fun, too, because it is the term Samuel R. Delany picked up (from Barthes) for The American Shore, which can be described as a book-length study of Thomas Disch's "Angouleme" (as S/Z can be described as a book-length study of Balzac's "Sarrasine" -- and I say "can be described as" because to say either book is that seems to me too reductive -- each book is an awful lot of things).

Which is not to say that I think I belong in league with Barthes or Delany (ha!), any more than anyone who picks up a term belongs in the same league with anyone who has used it before, but that I like having a title that suggests fragmentation, experimentation, close reading, and realms of both subversive (or subverted) literature and thoughtful science fiction.

14 March 2011

New Columnists at Strange Horizons

I've been writing columns for Strange Horizons for some time now, chronicling whatever happened to be obsessing me at the moment when the column was due, for better or ill. It's a good challenge. Various other columnists have come and gone during that time, with Karen Healey and John Clute being the most recent regulars, offering diverse and fascinating stuff.

Now, two more folks have joined the roster, and they're both people I've at least been acquainted with for a while, people who I have great fondness and respect for: Vandana Singh and Genevieve Valentine. Vandana's first column appeared last week, Genevieve's this week. Great, great stuff.

We've also been asked to provide names for our columns in addition to the individual column titles. Clute's got Scores, Vandana is Diffractions, and Genevieve is Intertitles. I envy them all. (Being in such hallowed company, I'm tempted to call mine Excrement, but I'll probably come up with something slightly less accurate by Friday, when I need to settle on it...)

Also, the Reader's Award Poll results are in -- congratulations to all the winners: Theodora Goss (fiction), Marge Simon (poetry), Orrin Grey (nonfiction), and Abigail Nussbaum (reviewing). I was startled to discover I came in fourth in the reviewer category, despite publishing only two reviews last year, I'm grateful to all of you who held your noses and put my name on your ballots! I'm biased, of course, but I think SH has the best stable of reviewers in the SF world, and it's humbling to be included among them.

And here, because I expect you probably need it, is Frank O'Hara's poem "Autobiographia Literaria".

13 March 2011

Narrative, Politics, and Sexual Violence

A post by Timmi Duchamp first brought to my attention a now-infamous article in the New York Times, "Vicious Assault Shakes Texas Town", which reports on a gang-rape of an 11-year-old girl by 18 men of varying ages -- from early teens to 27.

Timmi described the article as being chiefly concerned with the rapists rather than their victim, and I must admit that at first, being in a particularly optimistic and naive mood or something, I thought, "No, there's got to be some mistake -- the Times wouldn't let something like that through, would they?"

They would. They did. It's a nauseating article.

Timmi nails it, and so do Mary Elizabeth Williams in a Salon piece, "New York Times's Sloppy, Slanted Child Rape Story", and Mac McClelland at Mother Jones with "The New York Times' Rape-Friendly Reporting". Perhaps the most vivid proof that James C. McKinley, Jr's reporting for the Times for this story is rotten comes from a comparison with other reporters' approaches to the same story, which Latoya Peterson at Poynter does quite well. (Though as Irin Carmin at Jezebel pointed out, the Times isn't the only one with appalling coverage.)

01 March 2011

Writing Tools

photo by Eric Schaller
I'm teaching a course called "Writing and the Creative Process" right now, and one of the things I would like to offer the students is a list of tools I've found actually helpful when writing -- computer programs and reference books, mostly. I thought it might be fun to open up the conversation and get some recommendations from people other than me, since my own practice is peculiar to, well, me.

So, a question for you, O Denizens of the Internets: What have been the most helpful tools for you when writing? (And "writing" doesn't just mean you're a professional novelist whose last few books were sold to Hollywood. We all write things in our lives, whether business letters or shopping lists of secret poems we never show anybody. Everybody is qualified to answer this question who wants to!)

I'll put my own essential items below the fold...