Posts tagged with "literature" - Faerye Net 2010-10-14T15:05:38+00:00 Felicity Shoulders "Only a novel!" Part I 2010-10-14T15:05:38+00:00 2010-10-14T15:11:30+00:00 <center><a href="" title="Only a Novel Part I illo by Felicity Shoulders, on Flickr"><img src="" width="500" height="374" alt="photo of 2 books, Room of One's Own and Northanger Abbey, and a postcard of a satirical etching of reading women from 19th c." border="0" /></a><br /> <em>A Room of One&#8217;s Own, Northanger Abbey,</em> and a postcard from the <a href="" target="links">Lit Chicks</a> exhibition.</center> <blockquote>Here was a woman about the year 1800 writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching. That was how Shakespeare wrote, I thought, looking at <em>Antony and Cleopatra</em>; and when people compare Shakespeare and Jane Austen, they may mean that the minds of both had consumed all impediments; and for that reason we do not know Jane Austen and we do not know Shakespeare, and for that reason Jane Austen pervades every word that she wrote, and so does Shakespeare.<br /> -Virginia Woolf, <em>A Room of One&#8217;s Own</em></blockquote> <p>Whenever anyone mentions Austen and Shakespeare in a breath &#8211; and they often do &#8211; I think of this section of <em><a href='' title='More info about this book at' rel='powells-9780156030410'>A Room of One&#8217;s Own</a></em>. Above you see the heart of Woolf&#8217;s comparison. Of Shakespeare she earlier writes, &#8220;All desire to protest, to preach, to proclaim an injury, to pay off a score, to make the world the witness of some hardship or grievance was fired out of him and consumed.&#8221; In Chapter Four, she argues that many female writers&#8217; work is distorted with bitterness and anger at the oppression they have suffered as well as hampered by those obstacles. But Austen, she says, was unharmed as an artist.</p> <p>It would be easy enough to argue with Woolf&#8217;s entire line of reasoning. In modern novels, digressions such as the example she quotes from <em><a href='' title='More info about this book at' rel='powells-9780955881800'>Jane Eyre</a></em>, where she decries the restraints on women (&#8220;&#8230;they need exercise for their faculties and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer&#8230;&#8221;) may not be seen as detracting. One might say that in an age when the model of the artist as genius has retreated, it&#8217;s hard to argue that this writer or that writer &#8220;got his work expressed completely&#8221; as she does of Shakespeare, or that a work which has digressions on the oppression and circumscription of women is growing outside some knowable and natural platonic shape, putting out tumors of misshapen anger. The idea of self-perfected artists putting forth perfect art, however appealing it may be to Austen and Shakespeare devot&eacute;es like myself, seems a little improbable today.</p> <p>The <a href="" target="links">Multnomah County Library</a> exhibit I <a href="" target="links">discussed yesterday</a> classed Austen with Shakespeare in the first case of objects, thus bringing this whole line of thinking irresistibly to mind. As I proceeded, I thought about the exception to Woolf&#8217;s praise of Austen that I&#8217;d recently discovered, and in Case 3 of the exhibition, there was the very quote I had in mind!</p> <p>You see, I recently reread <em><a href='' title='' rel='powells'>Northanger Abbey</a></em> and realized that Austen isn&#8217;t entirely &#8220;without bitterness&#8221; and &#8220;without preaching&#8221;. Her later books, quite possibly, but in <em>Northanger Abbey</em>, her first completed, she hadn&#8217;t yet fired it all out and consumed it. And certainly, she doesn&#8217;t express any fiery frustration at the lot of Woman. No, her ire is for the oppressors of the Novel! I will quote at length:</p> <blockquote>Yes, novels; — for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding — joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! if the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens — <strong>there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. &#8220;I am no novel-reader — I seldom look into novels — Do not imagine that I often read novels — It is really very well for a novel.&#8221; Such is the common cant. &#8220;And what are you reading, Miss — ?&#8221; &#8220;Oh! It is only a novel!&#8221; replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. &#8220;It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda&#8221;; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.</strong> Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbable circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation, which no longer concern any one living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favorable idea of the age that could endure it.<br /> -Jane Austen, <em>Northanger Abbey</em><br /> [emphasis mine, to show the approximate quote used in the Library&#8217;s exhibition]</blockquote> <p>Here is a digression indeed! And every bit as long, I judge, as the passage in <em>Jane Eyre</em> Virginia Woolf disapproves (though Austen has placed it at the end of a chapter, thus escaping the &#8220;awkward break&#8221; whereby Woolf declares Bront&euml;&#8217;s &#8220;continuity is disturbed.&#8221;)</p> <p>Now perhaps even the scrupulous Woolf would pardon Austen&#8217;s vigorous asides in defense of the novel, since they come throughout <em>Northanger Abbey</em> and the perusal of novels does figure quite prominently in the plot, albeit not in the a uniformly positive light. But it seems that Austen was not entirely unscratched by the hardness of the world, and did pick a fight or two. Of course, by standing up for the respectability and literary worth of the novel, she was joining a battle in which she could make a difference: one you could fairly say that she won.</p> <p><em>I digress still further &#8211; and perhaps engage in preaching and bitterness? &#8211; in the stunning conclusion to &#8220;Only a novel!&#8221;. Stay tuned!</em></p> Anomalous Austen 2010-10-13T16:25:28+00:00 2010-10-14T14:48:40+00:00 <p>If you&#8217;re in Portland this Fall and have an interest in literary history or Jane Austen, I recommend stopping by <a href="">this exhibit</a> upstairs at Central Library, &#8220;Lit Chicks: Verbal and Visual Satire in the Age of Jane Austen&#8221;. (There&#8217;s a reception Thursday, October 28, 4:30–6 p.m &#8212; sadly, I will be out of town at a convention.)</p> <p>My friend Kelley and I stopped by here the other day for a quick peek, and I definitely want to go back. This is part of the description the library gives:</p> <blockquote>This exhibition puts Jane Austen and women writers of her time in context by displaying manuscript letters and first editions of plays, poetry, and early epistolary &#8220;novels&#8221; written by Austen&#8217;s predecessors, as well as first editions of novels by Austen and women writers who were inspired by her. Women&#8217;s periodicals of the day, items from Regency-period life, and later Austen editions and biographies add to the context.</blockquote> <p>This immediately reminded me of Joanna Russ&#8217;s <em><a href='' title='More info about this book at' rel='powells-9780292724457'>How to Suppress Women&#8217;s Writing</a></em>, which I read last year. In Chapter 8, &#8220;Anomalousness&#8221;, Russ writes that one of the various ways in which women&#8217;s writing is dismissed and winnowed from the literary canon is by rendering it &#8220;anomalous&#8221; or singular. Single works by remarkable authors are isolated &#8212; I daresay many people with BAs in English don&#8217;t know that Charlotte Bront&euml; wrote not one novel, but <a href="">four and a half</a>. But more importantly, perhaps, and more pervasively, those authors who cannot be forgotten or expunged are themselves rendered singular: the long line of female writers that emboldened an Austen or a Bront&euml; to pick up her pen, and moreover to seek publication, are removed.</p> <p>Russ quotes Claudia Van Gerven&#8217;s paper on &#8220;Lost Literary Traditions&#8221; (which, in a painful irony, I cannot find):<br /> <blockquote>&#8230;the inclusion of only the most extraordinary women [but not only the most extraordinary men]…distorts the relevance of those few women…who remain. Since women are so often thus isolated in anthologies…they seem odd, unconventional, and therefore, a little trivial…</blockquote> (bracketed note in Russ)</p> <p>and further:<br /> <blockquote>Since women writers are thus isolated, they often do not fit into the literary historian&#8217;s &#8220;coherent view of the total literary culture.&#8221;…As each succeeding generation of women…is excluded from the literary record, the connections between women…writers become more and more obscure, which in turn simply justifies the exclusion of more and more women on the grounds that they are anomalous&#8212;they just don&#8217;t fit in.</blockquote></p> <p>I remember my undergraduate class on British Writers, which I believe covered up to 1800, and I can&#8217;t recall a single work by a woman that I read in it. I was pleased to fill in gaps in my literary knowledge: I read works, like <em>Paradise Lost</em> and <em>Faustus</em>, and even <em>Rape of the Lock</em>, which are often referred to or quoted elsewhere. Most of these gave me little reading pleasure. Most of them (sorry, Marlowe fans &#8212; and yes, I know the text we have is mangled) did not seem to my subjective eye &#8220;great&#8221;. And yet they are assigned, recognized, mulled over: canonized.</p> <p>Just as Van Gerven says, the male writer appears to us in a family tree. The female writer does not &#8212; and as a result there are richnesses and allusions made by the few &#8220;remarkable&#8221; women in canon that the averagely educated reader will not spot. The goddesses of our recorded literature, emerging &#8220;like Athena from the head of Jove&#8221; as Russ says (I would have gone with Zeus), are without mothers, without sisters.</p> <p>So let&#8217;s see that quote from the library again:<br /> <blockquote>This exhibition puts Jane Austen and women writers of her time in context by displaying manuscript letters and first editions of plays, poetry, and early epistolary &#8220;novels&#8221; written by Austen&#8217;s predecessors, as well as first editions of novels by Austen and women writers who were inspired by her. Women&#8217;s periodicals of the day, items from Regency-period life, and later Austen editions and biographies add to the context.</blockquote></p> <p>You can&#8217;t read the copy of <em>Camilla</em> on display, nor indeed <em>Lover&#8217;s Vows</em>, but there&#8217;s something thrilling about seeing so much context, so much evidence (not to mention the voyeuristic thrill of reading these authors&#8217; letters and judging their penmanship). And who knows, maybe a few of the visitors, some of the more Austen-mad perhaps, will track down one of <a href=",+fanny&searchscope=1&sortdropdown=-&SORT=D&extended=0&SUBMIT=Search&searchlimits=&searchorigarg=aedgeworth,+maria" target="links">Frances Burney</a>&#8216;s books, or <a href=",+maria&searchscope=1&sortdropdown=-&SORT=D&extended=0&SUBMIT=Search&searchlimits=&searchorigarg=aBurney,+Fanny,+1752-1840" target="links">Maria Edgeworth</a>&#8217;s. Maybe the enduring appeal of Athena can drag her handmaidens and midwives out into the light.</p> One of my favorite quotes, Number Two (Shakespeare edition) 2010-08-18T23:01:43+00:00 2010-08-18T23:10:29+00:00 <p>In <a href="" target="links"><em>King Lear</em>, Act II, scene 4</a>, you can find one of my favorite quotable morsels of Shakespeare. A friend of mine recently blogged <a href="" target="links">about truncations of Shakespeare that change the meaning</a>, so I&#8217;ve been wondering if my delight in this little line is a similar sin. In the interests of full disclosure, I&#8217;ll put the full text of the speech, with my favorite bit in bold. I&#8217;m keeping my delight, though. I can&#8217;t help it.</p> <blockquote> <p><em>[Having found his follower in the stocks, Lear is now also shorn of his retinue by his daughters.]</em></p> <p><span class="caps">KING</span> <span class="caps">LEAR</span>:<br /> O, reason not the need: our basest beggars<br /> Are in the poorest thing superfluous:<br /> Allow not nature more than nature needs,<br /> Man&#8217;s life&#8217;s as cheap as beast&#8217;s: thou art a lady;<br /> If only to go warm were gorgeous,<br /> Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear&#8217;st,<br /> Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But, for true need,&#8212;<br /> You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need!<br /> You see me here, you gods, a poor old man,<br /> As full of grief as age; wretched in both!<br /> If it be you that stir these daughters&#8217; hearts<br /> Against their father, fool me not so much<br /> To bear it tamely; touch me with noble anger,<br /> And let not women&#8217;s weapons, water-drops,<br /> Stain my man&#8217;s cheeks! No, you unnatural hags,<br /> I will have such revenges on you both,<br /> That all the world shall&#8212;<strong>I will do such things,&#8212;<br /> What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be<br /> The terrors of the earth.</strong> You think I&#8217;ll weep<br /> No, I&#8217;ll not weep:<br /> I have full cause of weeping; but this heart<br /> Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws,<br /> Or ere I&#8217;ll weep. O fool, I shall go mad!</p> </blockquote> <p>Even in context, the bold line is, I&#8217;d maintain, funny. I snicker when I hear it said onstage. It&#8217;s also very unfunny &#8212; Lear has, after all, lost his power and is now losing his faculties. That&#8217;s terrifying and, for those lucky enough to grow old, inevitable. The form of the speech underlines this reading: it starts out rhetorically perfect and personally sharp &#8211; the stab at his daughters&#8217; necklines is great. But by this point in the speech he can no longer name his threats. And of course, if he could, he would have no power to carry them out. His inability to name his revenge may be part of his failing mental powers, but also perhaps a realization or reflection of his relinquished secular powers.</p> <p>For the audience, who are not failing monarchs, these words still have resonance: this is an all too familiar sensation &#8211; that feeling of being so angry that any coherent expression of it is beyond you. &#8220;You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need!&#8221; he says, in the first break in his fluency. That feeling is, if not universal, then incredibly accessible. That gives it a rueful humor, makes it a little sweet amidst all this bitterness.</p> <p>I can&#8217;t help but also think of it as a rather writerly shorthand. &#8220;[Insert awful threats here]&#8221;, if you will. The truly fanciful might imagine Shakespeare running out of polemical gas here, scribbling a placeholder, then realizing how perfectly that would work in Lear&#8217;s fury.</p> <p>And lastly, of course, it&#8217;s just damn funny. Because believe me, when I finally think of what I&#8217;m going to do, it&#8217;ll be awesome. It shall be <em>the terror of the earth.</em></p> On Genre, Part II: the future of genre 2010-02-28T17:15:02+00:00 2010-02-28T23:16:15+00:00 <p>I&#8217;ve been trying to write adequate responses to the fabulous comments I&#8217;m getting on my first post in this series, <a href="" target="links">a very brief manifesto</a>. And, as I rather feared, my responses are growing into blog posts. So here we go.</p> <p><a href="" target="links">Eric A. Kugler</a> writes in <a href="" target="links">his comment</a>:<br /> <blockquote>I think the problem comes down to the human need to label and package everything and put it into its proper place. Genre is simply a way for people to keep track of stories. The literary is simply another genre to those of us who simply read books, rather than publish them.</blockquote></p> <p>To an extent, I agree. Genre is quite artificial, relatively recent, and obviously confining. I do believe the current &#8220;literary novel&#8221; is a genre in itself. Witness my <a href="">&#8220;literary is a genre&#8221;</a> tag here, and my <a href="">literary-is-a-genre</a> shelf on Goodreads<sup class="footnote"><a href="#fn1">1</a></sup>.</p> <p>I wouldn&#8217;t suppose, however, that literary <em>isn&#8217;t</em> a genre in the mind of those who publish books. I very much believe it is. Because genre is about marketing. Genre is a way of classifying books so that you can sell them more readily. While I haven&#8217;t read a history of genrefication, I&#8217;d imagine it&#8217;s a consequence of the number and diversity of books that existed, say, in the mid-twentieth century, widely distributed. Some system for determining which titles were of interest to which readers was a public good. A system for telling a reader who enjoyed <a href='' title='More info about this book at' rel='powells-9781439132838'><em>The Puppet Masters</em></a> they might like <a href='' title='More info about this book at' rel='powells-9780441172719'><em>Dune</em></a> probably seemed logical, even helpful to the consumer (as well as to the publisher.)</p> <p><img src="/media/StarWarsMoviePoster1977.jpg" alt="The 1977 Star Wars movie poster" title="Star Wars poster" align="left" /><br /> Genre, we all know, isn&#8217;t just a category on a library&#8217;s card catalog. It&#8217;s a way of marking things. Covers with rockets or exploding spaceships, in the 1950s and today, mark a book as science fiction. Look at the original poster for <em>Star Wars: A New Hope</em>. If you&#8217;d never seen that movie, you&#8217;d know the genre instantly, from a dozen details (including those that don&#8217;t entirely represent Princess Leia as she appears on film.)</p> <p>So genre allows a product to reach its desired audience, the publishers sell books, what&#8217;s the trouble? Two sources of trouble to start with. In another comment to my first On Genre post, <a href="" target="links">Philip Palmer</a> writes &#8220;there’s a tendency to assume that labelling the genre of the piece is a black &amp; white/either-or process. But most novels belong to <span class="caps">SEVERAL</span> genres.&#8221; The strict genre system serves these novels poorly, as it does books which are hard to place firmly in any genre at all. When you use marketing to shape readers&#8217; expectations, betraying those expectations is a bad idea. So you may end up with frustrated readers who bought the cover and don&#8217;t like the book, or a great book may languish unpublished or poorly marketed because it didn&#8217;t fit neatly.</p> <p><a href='' rel='powells-9780802142108'><img src='' style='border: 0px' title='More info about Broken for You at (new window)' align="right" ></a><a href='' rel='powells-9781565129771'><img src='' style='border: 0px; margin-left:5px' title='More info about A Reliable Wife at (new window)' align="right"></a> The second big problem, I&#8217;d say, is that &#8216;literary&#8217; has become, as we said above, a genre. Maybe it wasn&#8217;t in the mid-20th century, but now it is. While it&#8217;s more subtle than an exploding spaceship, I can tell you without having read the two books at right that they are the same genre. I could have found a much closer match if I&#8217;d looked further. Why is &#8220;literary&#8221; being a genre a problem? Because &#8220;literature&#8221; is also a pursuit and an ideal. &#8220;Literature&#8221; is a laudatory term, and having a genre name that&#8217;s a value judgment is a disaster. Just try discussing whether U2 makes &#8220;rock music&#8221; with someone who hates U2 and thinks &#8220;rock&#8221; is a laudatory term. It also has to do with marked/unmarked status, I think, but that discussion&#8217;s too big to add into this already epic post.</p> <p>&#8220;Literary&#8221; has two meanings: One, high-minded, pursuing the act of writing as an act of art, trying to increase understanding and beauty in the world. Two, realistic or occasionally surreal, written with attention to language, telling a story that could happen, using a minimum of adverbs. The confusion of the two is poisonous, and leads to moments like the one I touched on in my <a href="" target="links">first genre war post</a>, when a young English teacher told me that &#8220;science fiction isn&#8217;t literature.&#8221; He didn&#8217;t think science fiction was high-minded and artistic (except when he did) so we stood there, me listing work after work whose merits he could not deny: <em>Brave New World, 1984, Lord of the Rings</em>; and he insisting these <em>were not science or speculative fiction</em>. This is exactly what another of the commenters, <a href="">Casey Samulski</a>, noted: &#8220;&#8230;a critic will retroactively reclassify something as &#8216;not SF&#8217; when it has reached a certain status, thinking it impossible for the two to inhabit the same space.&#8221; Circular logic, faulty thinking.</p> <p>I said then, as a teenager (even though at the time I believed that by this age I&#8217;d have a doctorate in paleontology and only be writing science fiction on the side) that one of my life goals was to take some bricks out of that wall, the wall between the literary and the science-fictional.</p> <p>There is good news about that wall. While Margaret Atwood did, as Philip Palmer notes in <a href="" target="links">his comment</a>, say some abrasive things about science fiction, she does <a href="" target="links"> admit to writing &#8220;speculative fiction&#8221;</a>, which is a distinction even <span class="caps">SFF</span> grognards might make. Michael Chabon&#8217;s stunning <a href='' title='More info about this book at' rel='powells-9780007149827'><em>The Yiddish Policemen&#8217;s Union</em></a>, which I lauded <a href="" target="links">here</a>, joins other works by him in receiving praise and readers from both sides of the wall. He seems to embrace both sides of his literary heritage. More and more, the surreal and the speculative is creeping into the &#8216;literary&#8217; mainstream. While there are aspects of this I find troubling and appropriative (more, perhaps, on that later), it may be, as a very smart friend of mine (an academic and spec fic fan) has predicted, that the Hemingway/Carver era of literature is at an end, and only the speculative can ask the questions literature wants to ask next.</p> <p>I&#8217;d like to tie that possibility back into my discussion of genre as marketing earlier. You&#8217;ll notice that the situation has changed a lot since the days of the simple genre division and the rocket on the cover. We have even more books, even more widely available. In spite of <a href="">tax codes in the U.S.</a>, we have a <a href="" target="links">Long Tail</a> of books still being sold that were published decades ago, as well as new books coming out all the time. The publishing world seems largely to be adjusting to this by continuing to <a href="" target="links">split</a>. We have more subgenres now, like urban fantasy (tattooed woman with weapons on the cover), literary science fiction (trade paper back, abstract cover), et cetera. The mix of small categories and large can be confusing to consumers &#8212; while I won&#8217;t link it, I recently saw a reader complaining that there were &#8220;too many female writers in sci-fi&#8221; because when he clicked on &#8220;sci-fi/fantasy&#8221; he saw mostly urban fantasy covers.</p> <p>I&#8217;d argue that it&#8217;s time to move away from genre and subgenre, even in an economic sense. They may still be useful if we make them less restrictive: as Philip Palmer points out, novels can have many genres. Sure, let&#8217;s label books, but let&#8217;s not put them in exclusive parts of the bookstore, segregated by shelf. I&#8217;ve waxed rhapsodic about <a href="" target="links">folksonomy</a> before, so I&#8217;ll keep it to a minimum here, but tags add information instead of reducing scope. Tags are freeform and encourage creative thinking. Lets use genre and subgenre as tags, not categories.</p> <p>Which brings me to my final point. People are always talking about the effect of the internet on publishing, but often in terms of physical books vs. digital media. I have to care about that because I hope to have my own books published in the future, but I&#8217;m more interested in how the internet will affect how we choose and discuss books (which in turn affects marketing). I am a member of <a href="" target="links">LibraryThing</a> and <a href="" target="links">Goodreads</a>, and I am delighted by the rich social exchange over books that I see on those sites. I can see what my friends are reading, what they think of it, read reviews they&#8217;ve written. I can get a sense of people&#8217;s tastes, how well or poorly it aligns with mine, and let that figure in to <a href="" target="links">how I choose books</a>. It&#8217;s not about genre. It&#8217;s about the individual reader and the individual book. Publishers do use the individual book in marketing &#8212; look at how many books have covers reminiscent of <em>Twilight</em>&#8216;s admittedly beautiful cover design &#8212; but I hope that in the future they&#8217;ll do so even more. The information readers can add to the system &#8211; tags, reviews, personal recommendations to friends &#8211; is precious.</p> <p><a href='' rel='powells-9780765319470'><img src='' style='border: 0px; margin-right:5px' title='More info about this book at (new window)' align="left" ></a>Marketing&#8217;s never going to go away, as long as it works. (And it does work. I wanted to buy <em>Indigo Springs</em> as soon as I saw that cover, though I suppressed the urge until I met and liked the author, too.) But I hope in the future, restrictive definitions of genre &#8212; and especially value judgments based on it &#8212; will take a backseat to a web of preference, similarity and serendipity.</p> <p>Serendipity and possibility have always governed my reading. That&#8217;s the feeling that makes me tingle when I walk into a <a href="" target="links">vast bookstore</a>. The knowledge that half<sup class="footnote"><a href="#fn2">2</a></sup> the books I love are in the Yellow Room and half in the Blue? That makes me feel something too, but it&#8217;s definitely not a tingle.</p> <p class="footnote" id="fn1"><sup>1</sup> I have put books in this category which I feel guilty for shelving so: I can&#8217;t help but feel that Dickens, and even Fitzgerald, shouldn&#8217;t be drawn into a fight that is rather after their time.</p> <p class="footnote" id="fn2"><sup>2</sup> This is figurative. I don&#8217;t know actual percentages, and I love a fair number of nonfiction books too.</p> On Genre, Part I 2010-02-21T13:45:24+00:00 2010-03-01T20:03:10+00:00 <p>I&#8217;m occasionally asked why I care about the struggle of speculative fiction to gain recognition in the literary world, which I call the Genre War. For one thing, I&#8217;ve been fighting since before I knew anyone else was, since a time when my sci-fi community was just me and my parents. For another, I have allegiances on both sides. I&#8217;m an English major and hold a Master of Fine Arts. I believe in the high artistic ideals of the literary tradition, and it saddens me to see them clouded (again, and still) by parochialism. The simplest, most primal reason is that I believe that the speculative and the literary enrich each other.</p> <p>Since I was a teenager, if not earlier, I&#8217;ve been insisting that science fiction can tell us things about the human condition that realism cannot, because it places humanity into impossible situations. It tests the boundaries of identity and consciousness. It creates other sentient entities, which almost inevitably reflect our humanity back to us. Fiction is many things, but the loftiest goals of literature tell us that fiction is a way of making meaning, of expanding the reader&#8217;s understanding of what it means to be human, mortal, alive. To me, that project obviously includes the tools of speculative fiction. If literature is supposed to ask the great questions, why shouldn&#8217;t one of those questions be &#8220;What if?&#8221;</p> <p><a href=""><strong>&rarr; On Genre, Part II: The future of genre</strong></a></p> Genre War is Over 2009-05-08T10:59:57+00:00 2009-05-08T11:00:38+00:00 <p>You know that genre war? You know, the one I&#8217;ve been fighting ever since the day a high school English teacher said the words &#8220;Science fiction isn&#8217;t literature&#8221; to me?</p> <p>It&#8217;s over. Ursula LeGuin has encapsulated the entire thing in <a href="" target="links">this little essay</a> and won it at a stroke. She even uses the same examples that have occasioned many of my struggles over the years. It is not so much that the essay contains new arguments as that it is concise, clear and authoritative. It says everything one wants to say, and more cogently than this weary combatant, at least, can muster in the face of battle.</p> <p>I&#8217;m sure the mopping-up action will persist, and perhaps I&#8217;ll still be having the same tiresome arguments for the rest of my life. But now I can send this link to people &#8212; heck, it&#8217;s reusable with attribution, so perhaps I should print it up and carry it around with me &#8212; the weight of it is lifted. Thank goodness for Ursula K. LeGuin.</p> What is historical fiction? 2008-11-13T22:50:01+00:00 2008-11-13T22:50:09+00:00 <p>I have this problem: I like confusing genre boundaries, but I like putting books in boxes. Online, <a href="" target="links">they</a> call them shelves. It&#8217;s easier with tags, but shelves have to justify their existence: it&#8217;s silly to create a shelf for just one item. So, I was celebrating the inauguration of my somewhat snottily-named <a href="">&#8220;literary-is-a-genre&#8221;</a> shelf just now by adding previously &#8220;genreless&#8221; pieces of fiction to it, and I immediately ran into trouble. <a href="" target="powells"><em>I Sailed with Magellan</em></a> by Stuart Dybek begins in 1950&#8217;s Chicago, and continues into the 1960&#8217;s or so. It&#8217;s definitely literary fiction, but isn&#8217;t it historical as well? Why didn&#8217;t I have it shelved that way? I wouldn&#8217;t shelve <a href="" target="powells"><em>The Blind Assassin</em></a> that way, though it goes way farther back, because it proceeds to the era of its writing. Dybek&#8217;s shnovel does not. Does that make it historical fiction?</p> <p>Is it a requirement that historical fiction be set in a sufficiently remote era? The 1950&#8217;s are next-door to World War II, which boasts any amount of historical fiction. Are novels set in the 1960&#8217;s historical fiction? The 1980&#8217;s? Does the era have to inform the story (how can it not?) or is the requirement that the author inform the reader about the era? Is <a href="" target="powells"><em>The Things They Carried</em></a> historical fiction, because it was about the Vietnam War but published in 1990? Is it not historical fiction because it depicts a period and place the author did live through? Does the magnitude of events depicted (their historicity) affect whether something is historical fiction? Does the age of the narrator? (I&#8217;ve been considering the idea that my internal genre-o-meter reads <em>I Sailed with Magellan</em> as non-historical because the 1950s protagonist is a child, thus implying an older narrator in a later time-period. If he were a child protagonist in the 1850&#8217;s, thus rendering his imagined adult self &#8216;historical&#8217; as well, would it twitch the genre-o-meter in a different way?)</p> <p>I have thoroughly confused myself, and should go to sleep. How about you? Got clarity?</p> What's in a frame? 2008-10-02T14:52:18+00:00 2008-10-04T11:19:06+00:00 <p>I&#8217;m reading Mark Z. Danielewski&#8217;s <a href="" target="powells"><em>House of Leaves</em></a>, which is on one level a horror book. I don&#8217;t read many horror stories: while I do, like most humans, enjoy the occasional self-induced <em>frisson</em>, and I have a fondness for ghost stories, I can imagine all manner of phantasms into the darkness without professional help. In short, they tend to stick with me for too long (estimated time from viewing <em>The Ring</em> before could stare into darkness without eyes resolving nonsense lights into you-know-who: 10 months.). This book came highly recommended by <a href="" target="links">Ryan</a>, and threatened, via said Ryan, to transmute my love for Poe&#8217;s <a href="" target="links"><em>Haunted</em></a> into fear. Of course I wanted to prove him wrong on that point. On top of these inducements, Ryan told me a recent <a href="" target="links">xkcd strip</a> would be hilarious when and only when I had read <em>House of Leaves</em>.</p> <p>I&#8217;m a third of the way through the physical volume, a &#8220;remastered full-color edition&#8221; snagged from Ryan&#8217;s shelves, which means I&#8217;m almost halfway through the body of the novel (there are copious appendices). It is legitimately creepifying, and its typographical oddities do work, for me, to physicalize the wandering in the story and depict an erosion of the rational and solid. These contrivances are part of why the book&#8217;s considered experimental and postmodern. But one device it uses is not in itself postmodern, and has been used to great effect in the horror genre over at least a century.</p> <p>I speak, of course, of framing. The frame story is a very old device indeed (at least some versions of the <em><a href="" target="links">Ramayana</a></em> are framed, and that&#8217;s around 2,500 years old), but I&#8217;m thinking especially of its use in Henry James&#8217;s <a href="" target="powells"><em>The Turn of the Screw</em></a>. In that classic novella, there are two frames. The ostensible narrator that begins the book (Frame 1) has a friend who introduces and reads a manuscript to him (Frame 2) that has been written by a woman once governess to the friend&#8217;s younger sister (the story itself). Much has been made of these nested frames, which put layers of hearsay and distance between the reader and the governess. If <em>The Turn of the Screw</em> were presented without these introductions, the narrator might not be seen as unreliable (though in the 19th century a governess, an unmarried woman in an interstitial social class, was fairly unreliable to begin with) and the reader might take at face value the ghost story she relates. The frames remove some of our intimacy with this primary narrator and help to create the piece&#8217;s legendary ambiguity.</p> <p>Other uses of frames in horror include the very effective stage play of <em>The Woman in Black</em> by Stephen Mallatratt, where the audience is invited to identify the artifice of the performance with the frame and thereby believe the central story to be real, and found-story narratives like <em>The Blair Witch Project</em>, where the story itself (a manuscript or video) is found as a mysterious artifact after the characters in it have disappeared or died. As I said, I&#8217;m not terribly well-versed in horror, so I may be overlooking other striking examples.</p> <p><em>House of Leaves</em> has a number of frames I have not yet counted. Let&#8217;s count them together! (<a href="" target="links">Ah-ha-ha!</a>) The book begins with a Foreword from &#8220;the Editors&#8221; who make &#8220;every effort&#8221; to translate and attribute, et cetera, and make references to previous editions, in what appears to be Bookman Old Style. Given that this is a novel, not a found manuscript as the text maintains, it&#8217;s safe to assume this is a narrow little frame, Frame 1. Then we have the Courier stylings of manuscript-finder, anecdote-teller and annotater Johnny Truant, Frame 2. Then we have the main body of the manuscript, a discursive and highly footnoted piece of eccentric criticism by Zampan&ograve; (Frame 3) on a documentary. This documentary, <em>The Navidson Record</em>, does not seem to exist as far as Truant can discover, nor do the endless articles of criticism on the work Zampan&ograve; references. The documentary is the main story. Although arguments could probably be made that it&#8217;s not, they would, themselves, get pretty damn academic pretty fast, which would probably please the spirit of the book. The documentary film, since this is a book, is unseen. There&#8217;s an empty center at the middle of the frames. It&#8217;s interesting, since Ryan told me that this book actually <em>shows you</em> what drove a character mad (unusual) &#8212; but the central story remains unseen, or half-seen, translated, transcribed, half-captured.</p> <p>These frames within frames do remind me of <em>Turn of the Screw</em> (which is mentioned, and its connection to the <em>Navidson Record</em> rejected along with all the classic ghost stories of Western Literature in footnote 167), but there&#8217;s more at work here. The book is, despite the nebulosity of the term, postmodern. Here&#8217;s the definition of postmodern from the American Heritage Dictionary (as I said, it&#8217;s a nebulous term, and this is only one opinion:)<br /> <blockquote>Of or relating to art, architecture, or literature that reacts against earlier modernist principles, as by reintroducing traditional or classical elements of style or by carrying modernist styles or practices to extremes</blockquote></p> <p>&#8220;Extreme&#8221; is a good word for this book. The use of <em>three</em> frames (James&#8217;s two is already pretty unusual), the way the frames do not just stand aside once the central story is introduced but continue to interfere and interact with it <del>- which may make the term &#8216;frame&#8217; less literally applicable&deg; -</del> the multiple appendices, and the crazy typography are all pretty out there. In addition, the classic horror trope I mentioned, the found-story, recurs. Within <em>The Navidson Record</em>, some footage is found. The <em>Navidson Record</em> itself may not qualify, since it&#8217;s un-found: Truant can&#8217;t find it, even though Zampan&ograve; and all his perhaps fictive academics have access to it. Zampan&ograve;&#8216;s manuscript is, again, found. And while Truant is very much present in the earthy footnotes to it, in footnote 197 if not before <span class="caps">SPOILER</span>: <font color="white">it becomes clear Johnny has disappeared.</font> As I&#8217;ve said, framing is older than Modernism, but he&#8217;s certainly applying it to extremes here.</p> <p>Without a doubt, the frames do allow Danielewski to cast doubt on his narrator(s). But it seems like the interplay of doubt and faith in a narrator is one of the things he&#8217;s playing with: the way Zampan&ograve;&#8216;s academic pretensions seem to be a way of bolstering his authority, a plea to convince the reader (and, I think, perhaps the universe) to believe him; the way you find yourself attentively reading Zampan&ograve;&#8217;s arguments for the authenticity of <em>The Navidson Record</em> even when you &#8216;know&#8217; that in the universe of the book &#8211; assuming the universe of Truant and Zampan&ograve; to be the same &#8211; the film doesn&#8217;t exist, hoax or not! Who is reliable? What&#8217;s truth anyway?</p> <p>Tolkien condemned dream-frames, in his essay <a href="" target="links">&#8220;On Fairy Stories&#8221;</a>, as deprecating the fantastic nature of a framed story. A realistic frame can trick a skeptical reader into accepting a non-realistic story. In horror, there&#8217;s another reason for a realistic frame &#8212; it&#8217;s a reality the reader/watcher accepts, which makes it easier to suspend disbelief and enter upon the fantasy of the inner story. That suspension of disbelief is necessary in order to give the audience the fear they came for. In <em>House of Leaves</em>, the nesting of frames lets the <font color="blue">House</font> exist several removes from the world of the reader, the world the reader accepts natively as real and true. But at the same time, the frames jostle and shift against each other, making the reader militate for the existence of the horror, making the reader want to believe the film exists, the <font color="blue">House</font> exists, because it&#8217;s interesting, and because it&#8217;s scary. A found-story frame allows the audience to see the story-record itself as its own evidence, its own artifact, even though they know the frame is fiction as well. In <em>House of Leaves</em>, the reader is even more complicit in scaring herself. Reading this book is tricky, it&#8217;s work. I am not only scaring myself, I&#8217;m working hard to do so. How much more complicit can I get?</p> <p>&deg; <b>Update, 10/4/08:</b> in footnote 308, Zampan&ograve; calls them &#8216;generations&#8217;:<br /> <blockquote>Here in particular, he mockingly emphasizes the fallen nature of any history by purposefully concocting an absurd number of generations. Consider: 1. [event] &#8212;&gt; 2. Navidson&#8217;s perception of [event] &#8212;&gt; 3. Navidson&#8217;s description of [event] to Reston &#8212;&gt; 4. Reston&#8217;s re-telling of Navidson&#8217;s description based on Navidson&#8217;s recollection and perception of [event].</blockquote><br /> &#8212;&gt; 5. Zampan&ograve;&#8217;s scholarship on the event. Heh.</p> Paid by the word 2008-07-17T17:31:38+00:00 2008-07-17T17:33:11+00:00 <p>I&#8217;m beginning to get a little testy about this old saw that Dickens is overwordy &#8220;because he was paid by the word.&#8221; It was amusing when my dad teased me with it in high school; no more. Boz&#8217;s novels were being serialized; magazine fiction is still, overwhelmingly, paid by the word. If the system is so flawed, then by rights these kvetchers must also hate all magazine story-writers from Asimov to Zelazny. I shudder to think what they must think of Dumas, who Umberto Eco informs me was paid by the <em>line</em>.</p> <p>In short, Dickens is Dickens. Florid, earnest, wordy, absurd, circumlocutory Boz, essentially and eternally himself. If you don&#8217;t like him, don&#8217;t seek beyond the truth: you don&#8217;t like Dickens. Why don&#8217;t you read some Hemingway instead?</p> The Wire and literary form 2008-06-10T16:22:17+00:00 2008-06-12T16:01:44+00:00 <p>This is more or less a review of <span class="caps">HBO</span>&#8217;s <em>The Wire</em>, all 5 seasons of which I devoured within this calendar year. However, it&#8217;s also a rambling musing about the nature of the novel.</p> <p>I was glad to see <a href="" target="links">Jervey Tervalon</a> say in his piece in <em><a href="" target="links">A Public Space</a></em> Issue 5, &#8220;The Revenge of the Angry Black Artist&#8221;: <br /> <blockquote>Oddly enough, what gives me hope is that shining light of literary ambition, the astonishing <em>Wire</em>. The <span class="caps">HBO</span> television series that aspires to be the <em>War and Peace</em> of the declining American city&#8230;</blockquote></p> <p>Mr. Tervalon is praising the &#8220;complex and integrated representation of African-American life&#8221; on the show, but the terms in which he&#8217;s done it are the same ones I have been using myself to express the scope of the show: it&#8217;s a novel. I started digging, and discovered that, just as we geeks know that <span class="caps">JMS</span> said <em>Babylon 5</em> was a novel in television form, <em>The Wire</em>&#8217;s creator, David Simon, has called his show a &#8220;visual novel&#8221; or just &#8220;a novel&#8221; in interviews. has <a href="" target="links">concurred</a>.</p> <p>So apparently I&#8217;m in good company. But this verdict on <em>The Wire</em> gives rise to the question, what the hell is a novel anyway?</p> <p>Being a good little writing student (in a few weeks, a highly credentialed writing professional), I run right to John Gardner&#8217;s <em>The Art of Fiction</em>. Okay, so my copy is packed in a box, so I search the internet for kernels of wisdom from <em>The Art of Fiction</em>. Luckily, Gardner is heavily quoted:</p> <blockquote>A novel is like a symphony in that its closing movement echoes and resounds with all that has gone before. [snip comparison with novella] Toward the close of a novel, the writer brings back &#8211; directly or in the form of his characters recollections &#8211; images, characters, events, and intellectual motifs encountered earlier. Unexpected connections begin to surface; hidden causes become plain; life becomes, however briefly and unstably, organized, the universe reveals itself if only for the moment, as inexorably moral; the outcome of various characters&#8217; actions is at least manifest and we shall see the responsibility of free will. It is this closing orchestration that the novel exists for. If such a close does not come, for whatever theoretically good reason, we shut the book with feelings of dissatisfaction, as if cheated.</blockquote> <p>This is a pretty tall order (and, as Gardner admits, assumes a moral authorial universe). It is, in fact, an aspirational definition rather than a pragmatic one. The pragmatic one is some variation on &#8220;long written, fictional, prose narrative&#8221; (this phrasing from Wikipedia). Even we starry-eyed litgeeks use this definition, or else how can you explain my having applied the tag &#8220;novel&#8221; to things like <a href="" target="links"><em>Whisker of Evil</em></a>?</p> <p>Is the aspirational definition even useful, riven as it is by contradiction? (Even Gardner says both &#8220;It imitates the world in all its complexity; we not only look closely at various characters, we hear rumors of distant wars and marriages, we glimpse characters whom, like people on the subway, we will never see again. Too much neatness in a novel kills the novel’s fundamental effect.&#8221; and &#8220;The novel is elegant and efficient; that is, it does not use more scenes, characters, physical details, and technical devices than it needs to do its job.&#8221;) Is the existence and maintenance of this idealized &#8216;novel&#8217; just a symptom of parochial literary thinking &#8211; a way of justifying the novel&#8217;s centrality in literary discourse and marketing, its place as the proof of an aspiring author&#8217;s skill and seriousness, its pervasiveness in the canon? After all, it doesn&#8217;t sound so impressive if we say that in order to be taken seriously, a writer must prove she or he can write <em>a really long story</em>.</p> <p>Perhaps the place where the heroic concept of &#8216;novel&#8217; really comes in handy is the place I stand now: trying to use a literary term outside the literary medium. <em>The Wire</em>, expanding as it does from a smart cops-and-dealers show in the first season to consider the problems of the working class, local politics, the school system and the press in the later seasons, has a social conscience that Dickens might have had, born into this century instead of his own. Certainly the moment when Bodie, young street dealer moving up in the business, first leaves Baltimore and learns that radio stations are localized, echoes for me as resonantly as &#8220;This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want.&#8221;</p> <p>But perhaps Mr. Tervalon&#8217;s Tolstoy analogy is more apt; I admit, I haven&#8217;t read <em>War and Peace</em>, but the sprawling multi-protagonist nature of <em>The Wire</em> is far from the Pipcentric ways of Dickens. Watching the first few episodes of <em>The Wire</em>, my mind tried to select a protagonist. McNulty is the obvious first candidate, the first main character introduced, and indeed sometimes <a href="">stands out in front in pictures</a> like a lead singer. For the first half of the first episode, the camera switches between Detectives McNulty (later absent for almost an entire season) and Greggs, in the manner we viewers have come to understand designates protagonists. But soon enough we are following a young drug dealer, sitting in on police Majors&#8217; meetings, and watching dope addicts fake ten-dollar bills. This is already a sprawling story, one hour in.</p> <p>As for the cops, our natural tendency is to seek &#8216;clean&#8217; protagonists. When we see a blame-shifting, overloaded departments with Majors who use the n-word, we look for the saving graces, for the <a href="">Lt. Gordons</a> who will make up for the ugliness of the fictional world. McNulty is too driven, too drunk, so we turn to Kima Greggs. I remember this distinctly from my first viewing, my initial investment in Greggs as the &#8216;good cop&#8217;. She&#8217;s responsible, dedicated, smart, kind to confidential informants. I remember at the end of the third episode, when Bodie punched a cop and Carver started beating him with a nightstick while another cop held him. Greggs came running, and I can still remember the way my disappointment mixed with the realization of my own naivet&eacute; as she started kicking the prone teenager.</p> <p>Brutal, isn&#8217;t it? But that&#8217;s when I realized how great this show was. They knew my instinct would be to reject the cops as a whole and cling to one cop as a paragon. I feel pretty sure they set me up for that moment, the realization that this show was going to try to reflect life, the messed-up, imperfect people working within a deeply flawed system. I couldn&#8217;t idolize Kima Greggs. And I couldn&#8217;t reject drunken McNulty, or violent Carver, or career-minded Daniels. I had to understand them instead, accept them all as humans with good points and bad. Cops, criminals, addicts, dockworkers, politicians, teachers, reporters: human and complex. Like they are.</p> <p>The world <em>The Wire</em> shows us is not pretty, but it forces a perspective we are usually able to ignore in our day-to-day lives, pushes us to see all the shades of grey. As Gardner&#8217;s ideal novel does in the quote above, it &#8220;imitates the world in all its complexity.&#8221; And it does it almost entirely in scene, without voiceover or flashback, without using those tools to consistently privilege one characters&#8217; experience and motives over the others&#8217;. This is an omniscient perspective, without the moralizing or unitary reality for which that 19th century trope has been criticized and rejected. So maybe this is a novel. Maybe there are two novels: the form and the idea. But strangely, I think the more we understand what the idea is, the more we can interrogate its attachment to the form. I would by no means cheer the death of the book novel, any more than I would the death of the paper book; but if pushing at the edges of media and definitions creates work like <em>The Wire</em>, what reader could decry that pushing?</p>