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.
The Bellowing Ogre Archives
“I am not with you when you read. The voice you hear is your own. I am giving you a frame: you are the one imbuing it with beauty.” – Robert Jackson Bennett
The votes are now in for Locus Magazine’s ambitious online poll asking for readers to rate the best fantastika of the 20th and 21st centuries. Some other folks have posted their lists and I thought I would post mine, and discuss why I made some of the choices on my list. As I started listing candidates I found myself thinking about what “the best” means to me and what works qualify. I re-read and compared stories to see if they were exemplars of the form. I pored through shelves of books to find more novelettes (which, as Ian Sales noted, is “an entirely arbitrary and useless category.”) and pit favorite stories against each other in my mind. But eventually I found myself wondering, with all of this reading and comparing, what “the best” was, and if that was what I was really trying to find.
A few weeks ago I attended Darkover Grand Council Meeting, a Science Fiction/Fantasy convention held in the Baltimore area. This was the con’s 35th year and it offered a bountiful variety of activities, from music to crafts to meditation sessions to a regency ball. Of course, the convention also had several tracks of programming that included many panel discussions on topics ranging from “Placing Your Story in the Here and Now” to “What Comes After Zombies.” I spent most of the weekend attending panels, and I was struck by how different they were from the panels at what I consider to be my home convention, Readercon. This led me to spend some of my time thinking about the nature and utility of convention panels for fantastic literature. As I listened, took notes, and let my mind drift amongst the ideas, good and bad, that the panels produced, I wondered what use the con panel has in our hyper-connected age, what a panel can offer an audience and what makes them fall short sometimes.
After talking so abstractly about criticism last week, I felt that delving into a book was necessary for this week’s column. My choice is Jeffrey Ford’s Crackpot Palace, a book about which I am sure I could pen a lengthy thesis. It is his most recent collection of stories and demonstrates his versatility as a writer, ranging from SF and heroic fantasy to unsettling surrealism and earthy realism. To show my bias from the start, I think it is one of the best short story collections of the year, even though a few of the stories fell flat for me. Ford applies his prodigious writing skills to the creation of stories whose fantastical elements seduce and disrupt the reader’s expectations. Ford can read like great American literature or SFnal pulp, but there are always shadows and depths that run through his tales, and they can be treacherous or enlightening as you fall into them.
Regardless of any genre affectations or fantastical content, life is inherently strange in Ford’s stories. One of Ford’s great strengths is that his writing slyly leads you to embrace what is happening, not by normalizing the strange and marvelous but by creating a tone that makes the fantastic inseparable from the seemingly innocuous writing. To be anchored to the illogic of the world presented, the reader must not merely see through a character’s eyes so much as coalesce how they experience and shape the story of the world being told. A sense of place is channeled through the characters’ actions and responses to be felt and assembled by the reader. This is not a unique method of creating a feeling of being elsewhere in a story, but Ford is particularly masterful at its execution.
“As a critic I am not in the business of providing purchasing advice, but neither am I in the business of attempting to read the author’s mind by establishing the facts about a text. As a critic, I am engaged in the construction of conceptual edifices. I bring to bear theories and asserted truths ripped from the world and my own imagination and crash them into the text of a book or a film like a runaway train into an orphanage.” – Jonathan McCalmont
Like discussions of genre and relevance, there is a perennial resurgence in the discussion of criticism in the field of fantastic literature. In fact, it seems to arise whenever a particularly sharp review or post makes the rounds. The recent flurry of writing about the “exhaustion” of SF comes right to mind, but the question about how we should examine and debate literature is asked constantly. Fans, authors, and others in the field frequently inquire as to the proper nature of criticism, its bounds, and its utility to the field.
I think all of these questions fail to see what criticism often is, and what it can do.
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“If you have read 6,000 books in your lifetime, or even 600, it’s probably because at some level you find “reality” a bit of a disappointment.” – Joe Queenan
“[D]espite the striking parallelisms in the logic of their understanding, fiction cannot be strictly identified with metaphysically possible worlds.” – Thomas G. Pavel
I’ve been thinking more about the “exhaustion of SF” issue this week, and some of the conclusions that have emerged from that conversation. One of the aspects of it that still bugs me is the conservative overtone that seems to mark a desire to go back to a prior interpretation of the genre of SF, or at least to a framework for writing such stories. In a comment to my column Jonathan McCalmont clarified that what he was proposing was a return to the “garden of ideas.” I like this metaphor, but I am still leery of coupling it to the representation and application of more rigid genre ideas and tools to contemporary fantastic literature. I am always suspicious when someone promotes the idea that literature should stick more closely to possible worlds (see for example Margaret Atwood), because this denigrates, intentionally or not, the impossible in fiction, and we need to not just write about improbable or impossible things, we need to celebrate them and take them seriously.
“And so life started to become an adventure, in a way we had never known before.” – Gregor von Rezzori
I’m shifting gears this week to get a bit more traction on other stuff, and to take a break from heavy topics. I moved recently and I have been slowly unpacking my library and re-acquainting myself with some old favorites, not all of which are fantastika. Some of these books are surreal or fabulous, and demanded that they be written about. So, I want to discuss some books that aren’t “genre” in the strict sense of the term, but that are challenging novels which admirers of fantastika might find pleasure and reflection in reading. Some of them are openly fantastical, others subtly so, but what they each have is some resonance with the sensibilities that I find in the best fantastic fiction and in great literature generally. They are strange, perplexing, rhapsodic and open to possibilities; they are fables, carnivals, and enigmas that require you to imagine the world differently and see it through some very distinctive eyes.
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“I do not think I could write SF if I were not disenchanted with large areas of the field. Those areas of disenchantment are precisely the interesting interfaces where I can begin to feel my imagination doing useful work. So in that sense if I would be a bit worried if everything was all right with SF. I don’t think it is – but then, I don’t think it ever has been. Rather than perceiving a particular crisis affecting SF now, I see the field as being in a constant state of stagnation and renewal, constantly exhausting itself, constantly hitting new seams.” – Alastair Reynolds
“The problem may be, I think, that science fiction has lost confidence in the future. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it has lost confidence that the future can be comprehended.” – Paul Kincaid
I was all set to write more about possible worlds in light of clearly impossible ones (such as those of Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wind Drinkard) and ones that play with the idea of possibility themselves (such as Ekaterina Sedia’s The House of Discarded Dreams), but the internet is afire with discussions about Paul Kincaid’s recent essay in the LA Times Review of Books on SF’s “exhaustion.” Having read his piece, an interview with him, and some of the responses, I wanted to examine the core of his argument, and that of Jonathan McCalmont, a responder who agreed with and expanded on Kincaid’s critique. Each characterizes “the genre” with broad insinuations about its ideals and characteristics, and agree that “the genre” is not living up to its potential. My question is: does this approach get to the problem they see, and if not, how does that change the nature of the problem?
“[A]ny existential statement – a statement, for example, beginning ‘Once upon a time there was…’ – always implies a world, because it implies a universal statement.” – Simon de Bourcier
A couple of years ago I wrote a piece for the Apex Publications blog on “other-worlding,” the process of creating a place and time different than the one we as the reader currently occupied. It was a very naive bit of writing (that disappeared with the blog), but that theme of understanding how writing creates a world, and how readers enter into it (or not), has been one that I keep coming back to as I try to understand how reading works, because every work of fiction posits a world that the reader comprehends through their interpretation of the clues the writer has encoded in the story. A world is constantly implied in all fictions, and the question is: what ideas and angles of inquiry can open them up to more understanding both in their construction and their effects?
“Because the day nourishes dry dreams and wounds your angelical being, you will set off in search of night. . . .” – Jaime Sáenz
Reading is a peculiar experience. It is a practice that simultaneously invites ideas inside our heads while allowing us to create a sense of displacement through them. Even as we take symbols and concepts in we are shifting ourselves conceptually and affectively. Reading can transport us to magical realms, make us believe that we share kinship with millions of people we have never met, or relate to us the minutiae of the everyday world. The power of reading is that it conjures things in our minds that are not there, and allows the possibility of experience and emotion and contemplation to occur in the process.
I moved recently and I have been slowly unpacking my library. As I take books out and organize I’m struck by the memories that many of the books call up for me. From classic adventures to philosophically resonant writing, I find that the fact of a book in one’s hand brings back recollection’s of a book’s feeling, of the displacement that it created as I read it. Some of the most powerful feelings come from the books that instigate one of my favorite reading experiences, a sensation of disruption combined with a pleasure gained from a text that challenges my reading skill and my ideas of the real and the felt world. I often find these experiences in fantastic or weird fiction, but the essential quality that creates this sensation is one of else.
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” The stories we tell about reading need to bound a potentially unending process of interpretation and imagination, even when we do not complete a reading. Or, come to the end of the text.” (from last week’s column)
“[S]tories are never just stories. They are communications and affect both their authors and to whom they are addressed.” – Vincent Crapanzano
In the time between this column and last week’s I’ve had a little revelation: I am still thinking about the reading process incorrectly. I talked last week about failure in reading, and about how we as readers create stories to relate our reading experiences. Many of those stories are told in the form of a casual fable and both arise from and address our own concerns with self-representation and our relationship to the literature we read, and don’t read. But only some of them are characterized or appear as failures per se; many of them are about a lack of consummation, of not completing a reading for some reason. Thus, to call them all failures is excessive.
I bring this up because it is easy to summarize and even essentialize unconsummated readings, especially when the stories we tell about them are brief, commonplace, and often cloak other meanings behind them. Last week I talked about a book that I have so far failed to complete and that I feel is a failure on my part to finish. But there are many other ways that we make sense of and integrate unconsummated readings, and this week I want to talk about another book and why I did not finish it, what stories I have told myself about why I did not do so, and what meanings I found beneath those stories once I examined them more closely.
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Everyone has their quirks and habits as a reader, and one of mine is that I dislike not finishing a story. Many readers share this predilection; the reasons vary, from a generalized love of reading to specific ideas of “giving a story a chance” or showing how durable one’s reading fortitude is. For me, it is partly a matter of fortitude, but also of curiosity. Even when I do not like a book, I want to keep going to see if I can understand better what the problem is or perhaps find something of merit farther along. For many years I prided myself on this trait, until I returned to writing a few years ago and started penning reviews and fiction again. I read books that were so-so, that were terribly flawed, and that were outright awful. I read Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold so I could say that I had read all of his novels; I read a Gor novel to see what it was all about. I churned through a number of mediocre and problematic books, telling myself that this would prepare me to be a better writer and critic.
But what was I really doing? In retrospect I didn’t learn a lot from some of those reading experiences. All I learned from Farnham’s Freehold was that Heinlein could stumble mightily in terms of a premise and its execution. The Gor novel I read some of to my high school friends late at night after a D&D game so we could laugh at, and yet be (to varying degrees) strangely titillated. The mediocre books were more trouble to read than the really bad ones, because there was less to shake one’s head at in them. When I started graduate school I underwent a change in how I viewed books; they were now items to extract nuggets of information and argumentation from so that one could augment one’s own work. I think this is the period where I learned to skim books, prioritize sections to read, and left some books unfinished in the tsunami of reading we had to navigate and absorb.
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“Critics seem to find it necessary, at least once in a career, to write a statement defending criticism per se.” – Joanna Russ.
“By its function, [criticism] seems to be condemned to dispersion, dependency and pure heteronomy. . . . It only exists in relation to something other than itself.”- Michel Foucault
I wanted to preface my column with these two quotations because they frame the topic that I want to discuss quite well and because they also draw on the two basic traditions I am going to intermingle here. In the past few weeks there has been copious debate about writing reviews, about voicing negative opinions on books, and about examining literature critically (or not). The concern that all of these commentaries relate to is that of the role and deployment of criticism, whether literary or social (but still related to literature).
Criticism in everyday discourse usually has negative connotations, and the dictionary definition of the word reflects this. In common usage criticism is about fault-finding, about a perceptive meanness used against someone else. When applied to a more specific object or discourse, criticism becomes a judgment, often a privileged one, redefined as “critique,” that emerges from someone’s vantage point as “critic.” Both of these notions relate to the root of the word “critic,” which is from the Greek word krinein “to separate, decide.” To engage in criticism, at its core, is to practice a process of analysis (separating a subject into constituent components to understand how they fit together) in order to render a decision about the workings of those components. That is an idealized definition of the term, but also a more essential basis for examining it.
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Last week I ended my column by stating that “[w]e need to draw deeper not just from those other wells [of inspiration], but from [our] own, understand our own depths before we go diving into others.” This week I want to discuss that statement, pick it apart and try to articulate what it signifies to me. That statement is significant to me as writer and reader because it reflects the importance and promise of literature to me. And by “literature” here I mean the written work that has meaning for me and brings me joy and fodder for rumination. Much of that literature is fantastic in nature, and I want to reflect on what the explicitly fantastic has to offer us as literature, what good writers can do with it and what good readers can glean from it.
The problem is, this idea of drawing deeper is subjective; it depends on the individual writer (and reader!) for its infusion and decoding in a story. What does it mean to “draw deeper?” What qualifies as doing so? Personal investment? Fine detail? Mythic resonance? Beautiful writing? The answer is hard to pin down, but what I am driving at is a combination of care and insight. I use both terms as broadly as possible, but when I think of drawing deeper, I think of assiduousness and illumination. I think of attention to detail, but attention that is sensitive and deft; I want to feel what I am reading has empathy and veracity (as opposed to Truth, for example).
“I went to the river but the river was dry
I fell to my knees and I looked to the sky
I looked to the sky and the spring rain fell
I saw the water from a deeper well ” – Emmylou Harris, “Deeper Well“
I was all set to wrap up my discussion of monarchy in secondary-world fantasy (for now anyway), when I read a blog post by Jeff Vandermeer regarding assumptions the current publishing milieu puts on our imaginations. It’s a great post and I urge folks to read it, and chew on it for a bit. What I took away from it was that we need to kick the truckload of advice and self-interested shibboleths we get from all quarters to the curb and remember that we are writers and readers, not producers or consumers of widgets or data packets. Writing is not a product except in the eyes of those who cannot, to use Jeff’s phrase, “dream well.” Writing is a performance, a service, an art, an effort at communication and understanding. What is most troubling about this burgeoning ideology of the Brave New Publishing World is that it very often ignores or diminishes the writing as process and offering to the reader.
“The fundamental idea underlying kingship is the separation of one human being from others. Being set apart is the very crux of the institution. The ways in which this is achieved may appear ridiculous, and sometimes perversely deviant, because they depart so radically from convention. But this is the point: if kings could not be distinguished very easily from ordinary people, then how would we know that they were kings?”- Declan Quigley, The Character of Kingship
“All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost; the old that is strong does not wither, deep roots are not reached by the frost. From the ashes a fire shall be woken, a light from the shadows shall spring; renewed shall be the blade that was broken, the crown-less again shall be king.”- J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
Last week I discussed the use of monarchies in fantasy fiction in rather broad terms. Looking from the author’s vantage point I considered how simplicity, drama, and domination were qualities of monarchism that could be usefully, sometimes powerfully, applied to an epic/heroic/high fantasy tale to provide a concentrated, basic structure for parts of the narrative. Monarchy can set a tone for the story, plant suggestions for story arcs and directions for the reader, and establish political and cultural parameters that have echoes of familiarity, if not stereotype, for the reader to follow. But the monarchies employed in many fantasy novels are cut from similar cloth, and the continued reproduction of them in the literature limits the potential of kingship as a trope or device and even inhibits the potential of secondary-world fantasy to develop new ideas and insights.
I am still chewing on the tasty gristle of last week’s Mind Meld on monarchism in fantasy fiction. I can’t get the subject out of my mind, to the point where I have started to assemble a bibliography for a longer analysis of monarchies in epic fantasy. I think that the respondents made some good points, but the post as a whole affirmed for me how tightly a certain idea of monarchy tends to throttle our fantasies. One aspect of the responses that confirmed this for me was the poverty of alternatives that people could recall from the literature, but another was the falling-back on certain ideas about the foundations of fantasy that indicated a very limited vision for writing and reading the fiction.
The interlocking elements of simplicity, drama, and domination seem to best characterize the basic use of monarchy in fantasy (mostly of the epic/heroic/high varieties), and while most of the respondents applied this directly to the use of monarchy, I think this more broadly reflective of much of the literature. It’s not just that monarchies are used because they contain these elements, it is that authors like to use these elements to structure and propel their stories. Monarchy as usually applied in these stories complements these qualities, and simultaneously appeals to many popular ideas of the romance and power of kingship. The invocation of fantasy as a genre based in fairy tales reflects this too, with discernible, often uncomplicated characters, melodramatic situations, and demarcated, rigidly hierarchized power relations.
“Not only does the imaginative consciousness allow us to transcend (depasser) the immediacy of the present instant in order to grasp a future that is at first indistinct, , , but it enables us to project our ‘fables’ in a direction that does not have to reckon with the ‘evident universe.’ It permits fiction, the game, a dream, more or less voluntary error, pure fascination. It lightens our existence by transporting us into the region of the phantasm.” – Vincent Crapanzano, Imaginary Horizons: An Essay in Literary-Philosophical Anthropology, (p. 19)
I just returned from a great weekend of Readercon, where I was fortunate to lead a panel on “Anthropology for Writers.” We discussed the promise and pitfalls of cultural representation and produced a conversation that has stirred up some more issues in my head about the idea of worldbuilding and the places of culture in fantastic fiction (and I hope to put up a video of the panel over the coming weekend). The more I think about and discuss how culture is used and represented in fantastic fiction, the more I feel that we are missing opportunities to create more entertaining and insightful literature. I want to examine two issues in this week’s column: the link between culture and imagination, and how our ideas of what culture is often limit the fantasies we produce and read.
When I taught Introduction to Cultural Anthropology courses at the college level, I always began by informing the students of an important fact: that they were all already anthropologists. They were participant-observers learning about the cultural ideas and practices around them and constructing “culture” in their heads. They had done it since birth and would continue to do so until their brains ceased functioning. They learned about the world around them and were also taught ways to examine and reflect on culture, and used such tools every day. They were not using the theories and philosophies of scholarly anthropology, but they were using theories and had crafted or appropriated methods of their own for understanding the behavior and utterances of other humans.
I am heading to Readercon this Thursday, 12 July, and I am very happy to be a participant for the first time. It is going to be a very different experience and one that I hope to repeat in the future. I’ve been thinking a lot about the panels I’m going to be on, and this week I want to write some thoughts down about one of them. On Friday the 13th I am leading the panel entitled “Anthropology For Writers,” which has this description:
“In a 2011 blog post, Farah Mendlesohn wrote, ”Worldbuilding’ as we understand it, has its roots in traditions that described the world in monolithic ways: folklore studies, anthropology, archeology, all began with an interest in describing discrete groups of people and for that they needed people to be discrete.’ This panel will discuss the historical and present-day merging and mingling of real-world cultures, and advise writers on building less monolithic and more plausible fictional ones.”
I think there’s potential here for a good discussion about the ways in which culture is invoked and represented in fantastic fiction, but I must say that I have some reservations about the idea of “worldbuilding,” some of which were articulated in a recent blog post that is well worth reading (and yes, it is ranty and mean in parts, but it also points out some concerns that could use more thought and discussion). Cultural appropriation is one of them, tangled as that concept may sometimes be. The fetishization of made-up cultures is troubling to me, particularly since that is part of my own history. And the focus on arcana rather than message, when it occurs, shapes the way that we discuss fantastic literature in ways that dilute some of the potentials and gifts that lie within that field.
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“In metaphorical terms, one could say that the processes essential to the reading mind are not mechanical or computational, but more oceanic, that is, dynamic, fluvial and fluctuating.” Michael Burke. Literary Reading, Cognition and Emotion: An Exploration of the Oceanic Mind
Reading is on my mind at all times right now, not just because I (like everyone reading this) does it many times per day, but because I’ve been immersing myself in different scholarly disciplines and genres that try to theorize and analyze the practice. When I first started reading about reading, I had no idea that there was such a dense history of its study or that there would be so many theories about the practice that no one book could contain them all. Someone has been trying to grasp how the process works, and how best to teach and utilize it, for almost 2,500 years. From the earliest forms of Mental Discipline Theory to the latest revelations via fMRI and other scientific scanning processes, humans in literate societies have been attempting to understand just what it is we’re doing and why we do it that way. This history is fascinating, but its vastness can be overwhelming without some thought about what you want to learn from it.