Last week’s column was a discussion of the best books of the past two centuries, and it got me thinking about the usefulness of such lists. Since this is my last column for this year, I considered doing a “Best of 2012” list, but it seems repetitive given the deluge of such lists that are already available (see Paul di Filippo for one great example). And while the lists from last week stimulated some discussion, I don’t think a list will serve for demonstrating what I gleaned from this year’s offerings. Instead, I would rather discuss what I learned this year and what pieces of writing affected me. I did something similar last year, but this time I want to talk more about not what I enjoyed but what had a discernable effect on my thinking, my writing, and the contours of my imagination. I was looking for something all year, and where my gaze lingered I found great writing and a lot to ponder.
With one big exception, I sought out new writers and new stories. I wanted to be challenged and unnerved. I read books by Robert Jackson Bennett, Kiini Ibura Salaam, Seb Doubinsky, and Jeffrey Ford. I read a swath of short stories at online magazines and blogs, and found that with each one I was trying to unearth something, not in the stories but in myself. I wanted to push my reading limits, which sometimes worked but on a few occasions did not. I was trying to find out what was still possible to change in how I read and thought and imagined. What I found in these stories often startled me, but also jarred my vision. What I found at the core of these readings was an echo of humanity, which I was quite hungry for.
A lot of fiction is concerned with displacement, “escapism,” and diversion. This past year I looked for writing that was trying to do more than that. I read work that tried to break with convention, that played with reality in ludicrous and odd ways, and that tried to stimulate deep emotion and bodily response. The result was that I became more sensitive to what was on the page, more emotionally involved. With many of the comforts of fiction removed and inverted I had to either retreat from the words or explore my own imagination to see what it contained, not what the writing purported to bestow upon it. Stories that did not provide escape, but tried to reveal something in the reader, forced me to recognize the role of my own imagination in working with and through the words to touch things inside my mind. I looked into dark and intimate places through these writings and was challenged to see that there was more to these places than pain and secrets. I gazed into the emotions that I had to bring to these readings and see my flaws and potentials revealed.
Absurdity became a companion in reading. I found the absurd where the writer had placed it, but also in other moments. I came to see that all fiction is connected to the absurd, in the sense of “out of harmony with reason or propriety.” Some of it barely strays from our assumptions and cravings, while much of it gives us the chance to become out of harmony with our surroundings, with the realities of those around us, and with the stuff we carry in our heads. Fiction is an intruder, often friendly but sometimes more sinister than we first think. I tried to read this past year as someone vulnerable to stories, to the deceptions and phantasies they echoed and inspired. I tried to let my gaze linger on ideas and images that I did not want to fully experience, and often I failed, but there were moments where something I did not intend and could not defend against touched me. There were moments of sacrifice in The Troupe that got to me, moments of naked longing in Salaam and Doubinsky’s stories that reaffirmed for me how closed I often am. I realized how much more work I need to do on my gaze to keep it from layering presumptions onto stories that take away their bite and caress.
I also read a great amount of the writings of Elizabeth Hand: her novel Available Dark and her short story collections Saffron & Brimstone, Bibliomancy, and most of Errantry. Hand’s combination of precision, empathy, and starkness, the lack of sentimentality combined with the rough joys of humanness drew me into her stories and gave my gaze a lot to take in and ponder. The general forthrightness of her prose is a trick, because its construction can stimulate depths and remembrances and bursts of emotion in a reader. Well-timed, rarely leaving anything to chance, but still vast to explore. Her characters are not just flawed, they often radiate imminent tragedy, and this seems strange until you realize that this radiance is something that we all share. We are all making choices that may go terribly wrong, deluding ourselves and those around us that we grasp the workings of the world, and then must find the grit and grace to deal with inevitable tragedy that life will visit on us. This prose invites you into each story like a gracious host, only to be revealed as tempter and teacher. If you don’t learn how to nuance your gaze and read with concern for yourself and the shadow-people of the stories you will be far less affected by Hand’s damaged protagonists and wrenching circumstances. You have to let yourself not escape, but enter the world before you and accept that your own sorrows and triumphs may be found there. You have to let yourself see not the words but the feelings and memories from your own mind that they urge to come forward to be examined.
Fiction this year was a series of tests for me. I wanted to shake up my ideas of what fiction could do to me. I didn’t want just strangeness or phantasia, I wanted to find out a little more about myself and what words could show me about what rattles about in my own head. I wanted to find the troubles and beauties of the world in a place where my thoughts had to deal with the notions and utterances of another, who was not present but immanent. who pointed to qualities in myself through the words. These writers, and others, pointed out how much I have to learn about the world as it exists in my head, to see the filters I impose on the world through the ones they create in their stories. This year I learned to pay more attention to where my gaze lingers, what I desire and fear, and to read the stories of others to get glimpses of what they think the world is about through the conjuration of a world that we each have a hand in. I found out that I need to think more about where my eyes want to go and to follow with both openness and reflection. The fiction I read this year was full of moments that compelled me to see the world with a but more caring and joy, and to pay more attention to not just excesses but subtle instances, to try to see the world more fully and richly. And I am thankful that I had moments were I felt that strongly, and I thank those who shared their words and worlds with me this year. My eyes and heart are surer for their gifts.
Starting in January 2013, this column will shift to bi-weekly publication. The past two years have been hugely informative and wonderful, even when I’ve tripped up, but I need to turn my attention to other projects. I had prided myself for some time on not missing columns, but as other endeavors demand more attention I’ve had gaps, and I don’t like that. Better to rework the schedule so that I can produce better columns. I wish you all joy over the holidays and a wonderful New Year.