28 May 2012

Spring Classes Postmortem

The spring term is done, grades are in, and so here is my regular, quick post looking back on how the courses went, an epilogue to the January post looking at the courses just before they began.

27 May 2012

Blogging the Caine Prize 2012: "Love on Trial"

This is my third post for the great 2012 Caine Prize blogathon. (See my first post for some details.) 

My initial response to "Love on Trial" by Stanley Kenani (PDF) was: This is a terrible story. Preachy, obvious, awkward, tedious.

But then I thought about a letter I wrote to one of my college teachers back in the '90s, when people still wrote letters.

25 May 2012

Herzog's Gatsby

You might have seen the trailer for Baz Luhrman's upcoming adaptation of The Great Gatsby.

I liked it, since I don't much care for the novel and I think Luhrman's stylistic excess probably matches the prose of the book pretty well. Also, Leonardo DiCaprio's greatest talent (?) is his general aura of blankness and vapidity, which fits the character.

But it did seem to me the trailer was missing something. What could it be? I wondered. And then, like a bolt of ecstatic truth straight out of the abyss of the past, it hit me! Werner Herzog!

Because everything is better with Herzog.

And so I present to the world, "Herzog's Gatsby":

22 May 2012

Libidinal Estrangement

From a rich, insightful, and fascinating review by Roger Bellin of Samuel Delany's Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders:
It is certainly possible to find worthwhile the effort it takes to attempt the broadening of one's libidinal sympathies — the way a psychologically realistic novel can demand our sympathy with someone else's life and thoughts, this one demands our sympathy with his sexual desires. If science fiction, in Darko Suvin's definition, is the genre of "cognitive estrangement," then the pornographic first half of TVNS is a work of libidinal estrangement: the novel's alienating effect bears on its reader's desires, not his rational mind.

Rather than just cataloguing its protagonists' sex acts, TVNS gradually becomes a psychologically complicated novel about what they've learned from them — a reflection, through a host of little narrated daily incidents, on the ethical lessons that a life of joyous perversion has taught Eric and Shit. Sometimes it almost, implicitly, seems like a manifesto for a broad and catholic vision of queer politics; and the novel's real utopia might, finally, have less to do with the imagined community of the Dump than it does with the people themselves, and the practice of loving each other that they've discovered and worked out.
I'm still reading the book, slowly and with, frankly, awe, but everything Bellin says fits well with my reading so far.

More later, once I've reached the last page of the book...

Update: And now Steven Shaviro is as insightful as always, and offers an impressive first paragraph:
Samuel R. Delany’s new novel, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, is over 800 pages, which makes it the longest book he has ever written (even longer than Dhalgren). It is also one of the best novels by anyone that I have read in quite a long time. Indeed, I would go so far as to say (as I already put it on Twitter) that it is the best English-language novel that I know of, of the 21st century so far.

20 May 2012

Blogging the Caine Prize 2012: "Urban Zoning"

This is my second post for the great 2012 Caine Prize blogathon. (See my first post for some details.) I'm coming a little late to Billy Kahora's story "Urban Zoning" (PDF) because it was finals week at one school where I teach and the last week of classes at another, so I haven't had much spare time, and then when I did finally start writing this it kept growing, and I disagreed with myself frequently, and I couldn't make anything cohere, and finally I gave up and just tried to salvage some of the maelstrom of questions and doubts that plagued me as I wrote. There are some thorough and excellent posts about this story up now, so I highly recommend following some of the links to them, which this week I will put first rather than last, because really if you do want to know about the story, you should read those...

Other writers' posts about "Urban Zoning" by Billy Kahora:
Black Balloon
Stephen Derwent Partington
The Reading Life
Backslash Scott
City of Lions
Practically Marzipan
Cashed In

Thinking his way through (or toward) "Urban Zoning", Aaron Bady digs into a bunch of provocative questions about what it means for something to be an African story and/or a Kenyan story, and Stephen Derwent Partington, City of Lions, and Ndinda at Inkdrops, among others, have all placed "Urban Zoning" within its specifically Kenyan cultural context. It is a story very much of a particular setting: Nairobi (and, according to Kahora himself, a specific time: the '90s). That does, and should, raise the questions Aaron and others have asked about the story's resonance and even intelligibility to an audience that is not deeply familiar with the specific reality from which it is drawn.

In many ways, though, all fiction (all art! all everything!) depends on the knowledge, experience, and assumptions each audience member brings to it. This is also true for aspects of the story that have nothing to do with its setting — I think we saw with last week's story how each reader's assumptions about what a story should be and do affected people's appreciations for the actual story in front of them. My own preferences for fabulism and metafiction led me to notice, emphasize, and value those elements of the story more than other readers generally did, and my relative indifference to gritty realism in some respects got in my way with "Urban Zoning", a story I admired (there's some excellent writing in it) but was, after two readings, pretty much indifferent to.

It's entirely possible that my indifference stemmed from my having only superficial knowledge of Kenyan culture and Nairobi in particular. I've been there, but as a tourist, and not for an extended period of time. I've read more Kenyan fiction than the average American, but that's not saying much. Nonetheless, the setting felt less alienating for me than a story set in, say, Eastern Europe, a region about which I know almost nothing, have never traveled to, and have only occasionally read about. The characters, situations, and allusions were far easier for me to understand, or at least recognize, I think, than just about anything in The Illiad. At least with "Urban Zoning", I could think, "This feels like a sort of update of Going Down River Road..."

17 May 2012

Game, Life, Class

By now, you've probably seen John Scalzi's post "Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is" (and perhaps John's amusing commentary on deleted comments and follow-up post in response to some responses).

My post here is simply to point you toward three responses among the many, many, many that the post has drawn. Excerpts are here merely to entice you to read more, not to suggest that they are the only things you need to read from these excellent writers.

First, Nick Mamatas:
...when class is fully integrated into an understanding of the difficulty setting of the Game of Life, I think the arguments get much clearer.

The question: "I'm a poor white guy; should I fight against systems of privilege?"

The answer: "Because you'll benefit from it. The more equal things are, the better off you are."

For rich white guys who ask the same question, well, they're clearly on the other side, so they don't need an answer.
All too often, Straight White Men do not see that their setting is easier, and they assume that those struggling against bigger challenges are simply poorer players. At first this is innocent — the Straight White Men are focused on surviving the game themselves, after all. They didn’t design it. But the “easy” setting’s invisibility breeds arrogance, not the humility necessary to acknowledge that you’re “winning” the game because a. the game is easier for you and b. the game itself is designed to benefit you most. The fact that privilege robs us of empathy and humility is nearly as poisonous as the advantages it brings, because humble, empathetic people would not gleefully skip through difficulty while leaving others to suffer.
What I’d like to add to John’s and Meghan’s furthering of Life on the Lowest Setting, the metaphor of privilege as a function of how easy or difficult life is based on character aspects, is that class does indeed count.  If you’re a highborn mage instead of a lowly farmer’s son who happens to have a small knack for casting magic, you’ll receive all the best teachers, all the best training in the arcane arts, will have access to all of the materials you might need to cast a spell, which can be quite expensive.  Or likewise, if you’re a highborn knight, you’ll receive all the best armor and weaponry and training in arms and defense, whereas the pub master’s kid will mainly know how to throw a punch and will swing wild without any really access to training.

Those are material considerations–the wealth aspect, or knowledge resources–to which a person of a certain socioeconomic identity generally has little access.

But class cultural considerations can also severely restrict some people, by learning your place, by taking direction because that’s what you were rewarded for, rather than learning to plan and set goals, rather than being among people who value reading and education or even networking beyond one’s own family in order to have greater opportunities in the warp and weft of our social order.  And these are inherent to one’s personal nature if you have grown up in those conditions.

14 May 2012

A Last Lexia

For various reasons, I've decided it's a good time to end my Strange Horizons column, Lexias. It began (untitled) on 7 February 2005, which means I've been writing it for more than seven years. I'm proud of the work that is there, and I don't want to dilute it or just keep repeating myself, so I've decided to switch things up a bit and move on to other projects (including occasional reviews for Strange Horizons; in fact, I was just trying to finish a new one when I checked to see if the column had been posted yet).

Looking back through the archives to see if I could find any special inspiration for a final column, something to return to or something to reiterate, I found various sentences and ideas I wished I could draw more attention to. And then the concept for the final column hit me — basically, to do what I did with my Weird Fiction Review collage, "Stories in the Key of Strange", but this time to pull material only from past columns, and to try to draw from as many as I possibly could without falling completely into meaninglessness.

The result is the new, last column: "Lexia".

The entire staff of Strange Horizons has been an absolute joy to work with, and I'm grateful to them and the readership for giving me such a great home for seven-plus years. I owe special thanks, though, to two people: columns editor Rebecca Cross, who has done a great job of gently keeping me from drifting entirely into incoherence; and this last column's dedicatee: Susan Marie Groppi, who first asked me to write the column, and who has always been such a sympathetic reader for it. Without her, truly, none of it would have existed.

11 May 2012

"Genres Do Not Exist"

From a New Inquiry Q&A with Eileen Myles:
What ‘bad’ genres did you grow up readingscience fiction, fairy tales, romance, etc.or read as an adult?

I resist the question entirely. I don’t think quotes ['...'] dispense with the idea of putting writing into good and bad genres. Let me say and I probably mean this in the most manifesto-ing way that genres don’t exist. They don’t exist at all. They serve the needs of marketing, of academic specialization, even as modes of work, but in terms of meaning or content or associative formations they are like traffic lights—not so interesting and most adamantly not what we are doing today. Genres for me are just a way in which we are controlled, protected I suppose but I’m not a writer to be protected at all. I love science fiction, have all my life and it’s where I met Kafka. Angela Carter is swimming around in there too. Science fiction propelled me into poetry and writing in general and if I think of the children’s books I was exposed to I can’t see the difference between sci fi, poetry, Kafka or Angela Carter. Yet they all know each other very well. That’s all I’m saying. Are there good and bad writers? I’m not sure about that either.
While I generally agree, I would offer various footnotes of minor disagreement (or nuance), most of which would just be me paraphrasing my introduction to The Jewel-Hinged Jaw and review of Gary Wolfe's Evaporating Genres. Genre is not merely something that "serves the needs of marketing", etc., but rather has been something produced by a variety of publishing practices — genre-specific magazines and book publishers, fan clubs, fanzines, conventions. Those are real, and they exist, and they profoundly influence, for better and worse, how all sorts of different texts are created, shaped, distributed, and received.

Otherwise, yes, exactly. I, too, met Kafka in science fiction. As have others.

10 May 2012

Zero de Doom

Here's a new video essay I created, mixing elements of Jean Vigo's Zero de Conduit (1933) with Gregg Araki's The Doom Generation (1995), plus some words from Robin Wood and an anonymous reviewer of Vigo.

Please note that the theatrical version of Doom Generation was rated R for "strong vicious violence, graphic sexuality, pervasive strong language and some drug use", and I used the unrated version, so if you have a weak stomach for graphic representations of violence, are aghast at the sight of naked bodies, and/or don't like the English language at its most crude and vulgar, you really, really, really shouldn't watch this.

09 May 2012

Blogging the Caine Prize 2012: "Bombay's Republic"

This is my first post in this year's Caine Prize for African Writing blogathon, organized by the ever-awesome Aaron Bady (Zunguzungu). Our participant numbers have grown exponentially this year, which is very exciting. If you don't remember from last year, the basic idea is that a bunch of us bloggery people write weekly posts about each of the short stories nominated for the Caine Prize, so helpfully provided in PDF form to anyone who wants to read them at the Caine Prize website. We will do our best to keep our posts updated with links to each others' posts, creating a giant hyperlinked conversation. The virtues of this are many — none of us feels obliged to be comprehensive about the stories, there's the potential for extremely different viewpoints to be offered, and, no matter what, a bunch of people are writing and reading about African short fiction. I'll post the links so far at the end of this post, and keep it updated as more appear over the next few days. 

And now, to the story: "Bombay's Republic" by Rotimi Babatunde, which you can read in PDF form via this link.

The first thing you should know is that "Bombay's Republic" is a delightful story, a story that, for me, fit all the requirements for that old cliché: a pleasure to read. I say that because this is not always true of Caine Prize nominees, or, to be honest, nominees for all sorts of literary awards — there can be, with some nominees, a certain sense of ... dutifulness. Stories dutifully written and dutifully read.

And yet I wonder about that statement, now that I've typed it. Where, exactly, does dutifulness live in a text? Where would I get the perception that a writer was writing dutifully rather than passionately? How would I respond if the writer were suddenly beamed into my living room and said, "Hey, you! I wrote that story because it's a story I had to tell, a story that burned at my fingertips, a story that, if I didn't tell it, would have caused me to spontaneously combust! There's nothing dutiful about it!"

While it is the word that most quickly comes to mind when I think of many (not all, certainly) past Caine Prize nominees, I am also suspicious of it, because it seems to hide an utterly subjective evaluation behind a somewhat objective-sounding statement and also to close down a discussion of what, exactly, caused the evaluator to have such a feeling: what in the text failed to evoke a response in a reader due to that reader's expectations of texts, knowledge of contexts, and experience of life and reading.

Therefore, what I will consider here is the way I perceived "Bombay's Republic" to be very much different from a dutiful story, to be, in fact, the sort of story where the first word that comes to mind when I think of it is delightful.

05 May 2012

Updated Fiction Page

A quick site note: I've neglected to update the Fiction page on the blog here for some time, so I just did so. It now contains not just links to stories originally published online, but information about all the fiction I can remember publishing over the last 10 years or so.

A couple old links were dead, and I found two stories completely available via Google Books ("The Lake" and "In Exile"), which made me very happy, because those are two of my personal favorites (which is to hint that reader reaction to them has been decidedly ... mixed...), and I had thought they were inaccessible and obscure. But no! (Well, their content may be inaccessible and obscure — or, as some have maintained, pretentious, arrogant, presumptuous, artsyfartsy, and — or maybe that was somebody describing my cats...) You can even still buy the whole zine or book in which they appeared, which you should, indeed, do, because you are a supporter of small presses! (Though you should really buy that issue of Lady Churchill's from the publisher's own ebook site, which offers it in many formats, all DRM-free. In fact, you should probably buy all of their ebooks. High quality, handmade. Artisanal, we might say.)

Meanwhile, the Selections page here remains out of date and a bit of a mess, but that's a much bigger project for a later time...