29 January 2012

Spring Classes

Zero for Conduct
Tomorrow morning marks the start of our spring semester, and so I thought tonight I'd do my regular pre-term post about what I've got planned.

I'm teaching three classes, one of which I've never taught before. They are Currents in Global Literature, Introduction to Film, and Outlaws, Delinquents, and Other "Deviants" in Film & Society. Let's look at them one by one...

27 January 2012

Metaphor Systems, Fictive Moments, and False Arrests

Bradford Morrow, editor of Conjunctions and writer of The Diviner's Tale and The Uninnocent, in an interview conducted by Edie Meidav at The Millions:
I may be overly optimistic or utterly blind, but my view of contemporary American fiction is that it is as rich as ever. Some of the best work is being written in what until recently was considered, at least among the conventional literati, genre fiction. Horror, gothic, mystery, fantasy, fabulism. There are so many stunningly original and serious writers working these fields. I have to think that anybody reading this interview would agree. Just one example, though there are many, would be Elizabeth Hand. She composes sentences of ravishing beauty. She is capable of creating metaphor systems that are so dynamic and provocative. She can turn a fictive moment that seems deeply rooted in the everyday into something that, in fact, touches upon the sublime, the miraculous. Just read her novella Cleopatra Brimstone and tell me that American fiction isn’t pulsing with life. Like I say, I could list dozens of authors here whose work I admire and follow with care and excitement. That said, I do think that much contemporary criticism is stuck in the past and that too many reviewers want those who are exploring ways to revolutionize genre to stick to the rules. I think of them as genre police. They make too many false arrests and lead potential readers astray, keep them caged away from renegades whose work they might well dig reading.

25 January 2012

Report Realism

At Gukira, Keguro has posted some provocative thoughts on "report realism" in Kenyan fiction:
Over the past 15 years and more specifically the past ten years or so, Kenyan writing has been shaped by NGO demands: the “report” has become the dominant aesthetic foundation. Whether personal and confessional or empirical and factual or creative and imaginative, report-based writing privileges donors’ desires: to help, but not too much; to save, but not too fast; to uplift, but never to foster equality. One can imagine how these aims meld with traditional modes of realism and naturalism and also speak to modernist truncations and postmodern undecidability. However, report realism names a more historically accurate way to name a genre indebted (very literally) to NGOS in Kenya.

The report aesthetic goes beyond citing NGO facts and figures. It is concerned, above all, with a search for truth and accuracy and is threatened by imaginative labor.
I cannot comment on the specific accuracy of Keguro's observations, because I'm not in Kenya reading aspiring writers' work. But I was interested in the observations because when I was in Kenya (over five years ago, now) and talked with some young writers there, the sorts of contemporary writers they cited as inspiring them were people like Stephen King and J.K. Rowling. Indeed, that's mostly what was available for fiction in the bookstores, with most stores putting Kenyan and African fiction, if they stocked it at all, in dusty corners. Yet the writers who cited these inspirations to me were, with one exception that I can think of (someone who'd spent quite a bit of time in the U.S., in fact), writing in a very realistic, documentary manner. That can happen anywhere, though, if you only talk to a limited sample of people; I hoped (and assumed) that there were other writers out there aspiring to different sorts of writing, whether fantastical in its content or experimental in its form, because aesthetic diversity makes for healthy reading-writing ecosystems. And there is some such work being written (heck, Ngugi's Wizard of the Crow is a good example); it just seems hard for it to get attention or to be celebrated in the way documentary realism is.

I'm a dedicated (if undisciplined) reader of African fiction, and particularly Kenyan fiction, but I'm very much an amateur and obviously an outsider, so I'm wary of saying anything other than, "Go read Keguro's post," because anything I say could easily be taken as a white American guy telling African writers what to write. My desire is not to tell anybody anywhere what they should write; instead, I would hope to encourage us all to do what we can to create the space for people to write what most compells them. Great writing of all types happens when writers find the forms and styles that allow them to express their own unique experiences and imaginings.

The danger of report realism is its normative power — if writers think this is what they should write, or this is the only type of writing that will get them an audience beyond their closest friends, then it is not just limiting, it is insidious and harmful.

Those of us outside of Africa who want to encourage more attention to African writing and more opportunities for African writers sometimes reinforce such harmful assumptions. The Caine Prize is a perfect example. In my Rain Taxi review of Ten Years of the Caine Prize for African Writing, I said that the Caine Prize judges' narrow tastes are helping to limit the possibilities for writing from the continent. That was born out again during this year's Caine Prize. I don't blame the writers for that.

J.M. Coetzee was criticized (rightfully, I think) for lending his name and fame to an African fiction prize/anthology that ended up including, it seems, only white writers. It looks like Coetzee only read the 21 finalists and then was tasked with choosing winners from that group, and that the reading was anonymous, so his opportunities for knowing much about the background of the writers was limited, but still, he's a hugely famous Nobel winner and could, at the end, have pulled his name or said something publicly. He didn't, but he did write the most reluctant introduction to such a book that I've ever read. The very first paragraph reads:
The 21 stories that made it to the final round this year are of a generally higher standard than the finalists for the last award, which suggests that the standard of entries as a whole may be higher. If so, this is a promising development. On the other hand, the kind of short-story writer we are all hoping that an award of this magnitude will attract, recognize, reward, foster, and perhaps even launch into the wider world — the newcomer with naked talent, a feel for language, and a fresh vision of the world —stubbornly fails to arive.

I don't know about "naked talent" (what does that look like in a text?), but the feel for language and fresh vision of the world are certainly things that have been, with some exceptions, lacking from the Caine Prize, too. The workshop stories presented in the annual Caine Prize anthologies, though, show that this isn't necessarily the fault of the writers, but of the type of writing that gets rewarded and encouraged.

And that, ultimately, is why I think Keguro's post is important, and why I hope it will not only be read and debated, but that it will help lead to an environment where report realism isn't the only option. Keguro says it better than I ever could:
I want to advocate for wild imaginations—wild forms of writing, non-linear narratives, an obsessive attention to detail, writing that strains at the edges, reaches beyond itself. I’m interested in writing that lives in secret folders on computers, scurries under beds and into drawers when friends visit, worries that it will be deemed obscene, crazy, impossible. I’m interested in writing that dares truth-the truth of feeling, the truth of form, the truth of seeking, the truth of language seeking byways and creating paths. I’m interested in writing beyond report realism.

24 January 2012

Alternate History

Ta-Nehisi Coates on Ron Paul's insistence that "compensated emancipation" would have prevented the Civil War:
We are united in our hatred of war and our abhorrence of violence. But a hatred of war is not enough, and when employed to conjure away history, it is a cynical vanity which posits that one is, somehow, in possession of a prophetic insight and supernatural morality which evaded our forefathers. It is all fine to speak of how history "should have been." It takes something more to ask why it wasn't, and then to confront what it actually was. 
For more, see his first post in this series.

23 January 2012

"Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart" by Rebecca Makkai

I've been reading through this year's Best American Short Stories, edited by Geraldine Brooks, little by little, almost randomly, not quickly, and mostly as a reward to myself when I get other work done. I got it as an ebook, because that's a nicely convenient way to read it. What ultimately attracted me to it was that this year's table of contents is more interesting to me than any in the last few years. (Finally, a BASS that isn't a Best American Rich White People!) My favorite story so far is Rebecca Makkai's "Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart", originally published in Tin House. For me this story alone is easily worth what I paid for the book.

21 January 2012


When I was younger, I thought John Sayles was one of the greatest living filmmakers. I unhesitatingly said Matewan was among my favorite five movies (yes, I had a favorite five movies, something that seemed immensely important to me at the time). I made a special trip to see Men with Guns when it was first released — I saw it during a matinee in West Newton, Massachusetts, and I was the only person in the theatre. It was a glorious experience.

But somewhere along the line, I began to re-evaluate Sayles's work. I saw all of his pre-Matewan movies, and they didn't really do much for me — I admired their intentions more than their results. I didn't quite know what to make of 1999's Limbo; I felt myself trying very hard to like it, because it was Sayles, but it took a lot of work to summon much enthusiasm for it. Then Sunshine State I thought was just terrible: flat, schematic, obvious, dreadful. Silver City was worse. Casa de los Babys I sort of liked, and certainly admired elements of, but it also felt generally minor and heavyhanded. I never got around to seeing Honeydripper.

I haven't watched Matewan for a few years now (partly because the DVD transfer is terrible and makes a mess of Haskell Wexler's cinematography). Nor have I revisited the other late-'80s/early-'90s Sayles films that I so enjoyed in my teens and early twenties (City of Hope, Passion Fish, Secret of Roan Inish, Lone Star, Men with Guns) because though most of them are still strong in my memory, I know that I would enjoy them less now than I did then, and I don't see any reason to lessen what were powerful cinematic experiences for me when I was more naive about both cinema and life.

Thus, I approached Sayles's most recent film, Amigo, with some hesitancy, because while I very much wanted to like it, I knew there was plenty of chance that I would not, and if I didn't, I would tempted to give up on Sayles forever.

But I ended up enjoying Amigo more than any Sayles film since Men with Guns. It's not a movie I'd put on any sort of top-ten list, but a number of scenes held at least a bit of the old magic for me.

The Worst Years of the Book as an Object

A fascinating interview at Boston Review with the always-already-fascinating Richard Nash:
...I’m tremendously optimistic about the future of the book as an object. I think the worst years of the book as an object have been the last 50 years. [...]

Basically, when you’ve got an industry that is pushing out $25 billion worth of physical products into a supply chain, the vast majority of businesses are going to try to cut costs and increase revenues. And the simplest way to cut costs is going to be on the production side. So if the core of the business is no longer a supply chain, but rather the orchestration of writing and reading communities, the book is freed of its obligation to be the sole means for the broad mass dissemination of the word, and instead become a thing where the intrinsic qualities of the book itself can be explored.
And much more about publishing, reading, Cursor, communities, etc.

20 January 2012

"Why We Oppose Pockets for Women"

Here's a fabulous article by Lili Loofbourow from The Hairpin that presents excerpts from a book she discovered on Project Gutenberg, Are Women People? It's full of awesomeness, but the Delany-ologist in me particularly liked this bit about pockets:

Why We Oppose Pockets for Women
by Alice Duer Miller

1. Because pockets are not a natural right.

2. Because the great majority of women do not want pockets. If they did they would have them.

3. Because whenever women have had pockets they have not used them.

4. Because women are required to carry enough things as it is, without the additional burden of pockets.

5. Because it would make dissension between husband and wife as to whose pockets were to be filled.

6. Because it would destroy man's chivalry toward woman, if he did not have to carry all her things in his pockets.

7. Because men are men, and women are women. We must not fly in the face of nature.

8. Because pockets have been used by men to carry tobacco, pipes, whiskey flasks, chewing gum and compromising letters. We see no reason to suppose that women would use them more wisely.

18 January 2012


I think the SOPA/PIPA internet blackout protest is a useful way to increase the public's awareness of legislation that has a potential to really affect the way the internet is structured. It's a "publicity stunt", indeed, because one of the goals of most protest actions is to increase public awareness of the protestors' point of view. Inconveniencing folks is a good way to do that.

Pure inconvenience is counterproductive, though. The inconvenience has to be mixed with informing the inconvenienced people about your point of view. That's why the various sites blacking themselves out are also providing links to information and ways for folks in the U.S. to contact their legislators.

I find the arguments against SOPA/PIPA convincing, and though some good and powerful people have come out against these specific bills, that doesn't mean the bills are dead, and even if it did, a show of solidarity against such bills can't be a bad thing. There are strong and powerful forces that want to curtail and censor internet communication, but those aren't the only threat — well-intentioned but shoddy legislation of highly technical systems could just as easily wreak havoc.

It's weird to think of being in solidarity with a giant corporate megalord like Google, but hey, this site is made possible by Google, which owns Blogger, and I'm grateful to them for providing it.

Here's a nice summary of some of the issues at hand, written by Sherwin Sly of Public Knowledge back in May:
Often, whenever we point out flaws in the DMCA's safe harbor provisions, we hear a reluctance among those who rely upon it to "open it up" for amendment and improvement. The fear, apparently, is that engaging in that discussion will give the record labels and movie studios an opportunity to lobby for themselves and move the goalposts further. The problem with that caution is that those goalposts are being moved today. Even if section 512 of Title 17 doesn't feel Congress's red pen anytime soon, the actual conditions under which Internet companies and users will have to operate are being changed right now. The structure of the Internet itself, and the premises upon which it is based are being negotiated in Congress, and not by those bodies concerned with its structure as a whole, but by those that see the Internet as merely a means of serving up product, or stealing it. 
But the Internet is more than just another TV channel or some sort of digital magazine. Not only in what it does—connecting individuals and communities across the world—but how it does it. It relies upon technological consensus among a wide variety of actors to remain a global, unified system, but we're seeing that consensus eroding rapidly as more and more political factions come to understand its power and where the levers are. And no matter how good the intentions of the United States government may be, they will be taken as a model for governments everywhere that seek to cut off from their citizens content and speech they'd rather not have available. This bill accelerates the Internet down that path.

Some more sources of information:

17 January 2012

Oneiric Realism

From a recently-unearthed interview with Pier Paolo Pasolini, conducted three days before he was murdered:
Have you bid farewell to the realism of your first features for good?

I don't agree with this. After 15 years in Italy, they finally showed Accattone on TV. We realized it is not a realist film at all. It's a dream, it's an oneiric movie.

Didn't they consider it a realistic film in Italy?

Yes, but it was a misunderstanding. When I made it, I knew I was doing a very lyrical film, not oneiric as it now seems, but deeply lyrical. I used that soundtrack and shot it in a certain way for a reason. Then what happened was that the realistic world I drew inspiration from for Accattone disappeared; it is no longer there, so the film is a dream of that world.

Mamma Roma is realist…

Mamma Roma is more realistic than Accattone, maybe. I should watch it again. It is less accomplished, less beautiful and that's because it is less dream-like.

"Walk in the Light..." Part 2

The second half of my story "Walk in the Light While There Is Light" is now up at Failbetter.com, so the story is complete. It's probably best to read it from beginning to end, but if you want to go straight to the second part, here's the link.

15 January 2012

Exercises in Procrastinatory Videography

Having plenty of other things to do always tempts me to take on Projects That Are Not The Things I Should Be Doing.

Thus, I've been making strange videos.

One didn't take long at all because it was just a mash-up for Press Play's Vertigo contest, a contest designed to find all the varieties of movies that Bernard Herrmann's "Scene d'Amour" music can fit into, now that Kim Novak has expressed her horror that it was used in The Artist. (For more on that, see Press Play.) I decided to go with a relatively obscure film, 1931's lesbian classic Mädchen in Uniform, mostly because I happened to have it on my computer, so it was easy to manipulate.

That's good fun, but it didn't really achieve my procrastinatory goals, because it took longer to upload it to Vimeo than it did to create it. It also didn't let me achieve my lifelong goal of making a science fiction movie.

13 January 2012

Double Feature: Beginners & Weekend

Without any conscious decision to do so, I ended up watching two movies this week that make an excellent pair: Beginners and Weekend. Both have a lot to say about repression, shame, sex, and families, but they do so with a generally light touch. Beginners is the more comic of the two films, though its real triumph is its balance of humor and heartbreak, while Weekend is more subdued — a little bit verité, a little bit mumblecore — and far less likely than Beginners to attract Oscar votes or general viewers, which is a shame, because it's better than almost everything that will be nominated for all the awards.

Beginners is writer-director Mike Mills's semi-autobiographical story of a father's last few years of life and a son's attempt to find a romantic relationship that will last more than just a little while. The father, played by Christopher Plummer, announces that, now that his wife of 40+ years has died, he feels able to admit openly that he is gay, and he is on the search for a boyfriend. It's not long, though, before he is diagnosed with terminal cancer, and the film moves back and forth in time between these last years and the life of his son, Ewan McGregor, in the aftermath of his father's death, when he inherits his telepathic dog (complete with subtitles) and starts a romance with a mysterious woman, Mélanie Laurent.

Weekend is much more focused in its timeline: it depicts a few days in the life of two British men who meet in a bar, drink a lot, spend the night together, and then have to figure out what next. The viewpoint character, Russell (Tom Cullen), lives a life surrounded by straight people, and though he is out to his best friends, his greatest desire is to have a "normal" life. The guy he brings home, Glen (Chris New), is much more radically queer, and one broken heart has bitterly soured him on the whole idea of romance. One of the primary narrative questions that creates suspense, character development, and catharsis is: Will Glen be able to get Russell to kiss him in public before Glen heads off to study in the U.S. for a few years? That the film makes this question essential, suspenseful, and emotionally powerful is just one tribute to its many virtues.

10 January 2012

Walk in the Light While There Is Light

Frankenstein by Lynd Ward

A new story of mine, "Walk in the Light While There Is Light", is being serialized in two parts at Failbetter.com, with the first part now posted. Here's the first paragraph, to tempt you:
Baskerville decided to become a monster because he had chewed his way far into the Earth, and he lived now in the space he had chewed for himself, a musty cavern beneath a knoll in an unnamed wilderness in northern Maine. He had been on vacation, alone, hiking and camping, trying to forget his latest failed encounter with something resembling love, when he was seized with the desire to devour some soil. His friend Cal the Freudian would have said this desire was fueled by a need to consume and obliterate his mother—the Earth, of course, being the biggest mother of them all—but Baskerville thought this was bullshit, because Freud was bullshit, and if Cal had been there with him, Baskerville would have accused him of being a coprophiliac for all the bullshit he ate, and that would have set Cal a-thinking for so long that he might have shut up for a while.
The story was inspired by a few things -- some random passages from Frankenstein, The Hound of the Baskervilles, some stray bits of Kafka, original newspaper reports of Kaspar Hauser, and Tolstoy's essay "What is Art?" (Also, I stole the title from Tolstoy.) Some of those things I used directly, some I stuck into Microsoft Word and pureéd with the summarize feature, reducing, for instance, the entire text of The Hound of the Baskervilles to something like 250 words. The challenge then was to take all this random matter and try to weave a story between it.

What ultimately gave me the story, though, was the reissue of Frankenstein illustrated by Lynd Ward. The illustrations captivated me, and somehow sparked the story of Baskerville and his plight, and that led my brain to see links between the various bits of prose I'd been collecting.

Having it published by Failbetter is especially nice right now, because a little over ten years ago, Failbetter published my story "Getting a Date for Amelia", the first of what I generally consider my professional fiction. I didn't publish another story for a few years after that one, so with luck I'll have a little less of a gap this time, though I'm not exactly the world's most prolific fiction writer.

07 January 2012

Desert Island DVDs

It's a new year and a Saturday morning (as I type this), I have lots of stuff I should be doing, and this here thingamabob is a blog, which means -- time for a useless, ephemeral, and yet powerfully enticing internet meme (aka, tool of procrastination)!

At Salon, one of my favorite movie critics, Matt Zoller Seitz, created a slideshow of his picks for DVDs he'd want if stranded on a desert island (with, presumably, endless food and water and a great home/island video system). There are rules (1 short, 1 season of a TV show, etc.). Many people have left their own lists in the comments section of the slideshow, and critic Jim Emerson has also offered his own list, with further lists made by commenters at his site.

So, to keep the internet going, here is my contribution...

06 January 2012

The Good Extra: A Movie Memoir

In the winter of 1993, I had the chance to be an extra in the movie The Good Son, starring Macauley Culkin and Elijah Wood. This is a video essay looking back on that experience.

03 January 2012

On Kipple and 2011

I have a couple of things at Strange Horizons this week: a new Lexias column, "Kipple", and a contribution to the annual year-in-review article.

I hadn't thought I'd read much that was first published in 2011, but looking over other people's contributions, I see I've read more than I thought; I just forgot when it was published. (For instance, I would have mentioned Gwyneth Jones's The Universe of Things, but for some reason I had it in my mind as having been published in 2010. I'm terrible with dates.)

02 January 2012


Ron Hogan has an interesting post over at Beatrice, updating a 2008 post called "What's Your Ultimate Blogroll?" for the new year. This reminded me of a discussion I had with a creative nonfiction class in early December, where I was one of a few folks invited in to talk about blogging. One of the things the students asked was, "What blogs do you recommend?" I said, "Well, I've got a blogroll on the sidebar of my site with some blogs listed in it..." The instructor for the course laughed and said, "And it's got something like 300 blogs on it!"

It does certainly list a lot of sites, some of which, I'm sure, are defunct. I keep up with them all via Google Reader, and, in fact, display the list via Google Reader -- if you wanted, you could subscribe to the list itself and see every post from everybody on it.

Not very practical, though, as a recommendation service. And though in some ways it does, in fact, represent some of what I'm interested in, it doesn't prioritize that interest in any way, and it's too overwhelming for most people seeking new stuff to look at.

I've been thinking about ways of paring it down, or getting rid of it completely. With the various things I recommend via the Delicious and Diigo links on the sidebar, is there really a need for a blogroll at all? Couldn't that space be converted to, say, a list of the 10 blogs I most frequently and devotedly read?