First, You Learn How To Read

November 8, 2009 at 9:57 pm (Art, Books, How, Science Fiction and Fantasy, The Fantastic) (, , , , , , , , , )

“A lot of the contemporary writers outside of the SF world who interest me seem to be moving more and more away from the metaphorical tendencies that literary criticism has encouraged and fed off of for so long — a writer like Aimee Bender, to take just one example, writes stories that can feel, at times, like parables, and yet they just don’t work when interpreted that way; they fall apart and dissolve. This is a strength, not a weakness — they shatter any one meaning and can only give pleasure to a reader willing either to suspend the interpretive impulse altogether and take the story literally, or to a reader who is comfortable holding multiple possible interpretations in mind at once. SF readers tend to be very good at the former, and it’s a perfectly acceptable and justifiable position — indeed, one that most authors, I’d guess, would endorse: close attention to what the words, sentences, and paragraphs actually say.”

-Matthew Cheney, “The Inadequacies of Allegory

“I realized that good reading is a matter of learning the protocols and applying them with understanding and sensitivity to a particular genre…If one doesn’t know the correct protocol or misidentifies the genre, one is likely to misread something—in the sense, at least, that there is a “best” or even a “good” reading based upon the author’s intention or a consensus of experienced readers…If one should try to read Alice in Wonderland as if it were a science-fiction novel, one would ask skeptical questions about how Alice could fall down a rabbit hole without hurting herself or where the mass came from to make her grow so tall (or how her bones could support her) or where the mass went when she shrank. All these are inappropriate questions, of course, but if fantasy is approached skeptically, it evaporates; one cannot read it. On the other hand, if one should read hard science fiction without asking skeptical questions, as if it were fantasy (a much more common event), the reader would miss the most important aspect of hard SF, the fact that it creates a functional world that is different from but consistent with the world in which the reader lives.”

-James Gunn, “The Protocols of Science Fiction

“The subjunctivity level for a series of words labeled naturalistic fiction is defined by: could have happened…     Fantasy takes the subjunctivity of naturalistic fiction and throws it in reverse…the level of subjunctivity becomes: could not have happened
But when…any correction of images that indicates the future appears in a series of words and marks it as s-f, the subjunctivity level is changed once more: These objects, these convocations of objects into situations and events, are blanketly defined by: have not happened
In naturalistic fiction our corrections in our images must be made in accordance with what we know of the personally observable…
[T]he corrective process in fantasy is limited too: when we are given a correction that is not meaningful in terms of the personally observable world, we must accept any pseudo-explanation we are given. If there is no pseudo-explanation, it must remain mysterious…
The subjunctive level of s-f says that we must make our correction process in accord with what we know of the physically explainable universe. And the physically explainable has a much wider range than the personally observable.”

-Samuel Delany, “About Five Thousand Seven Hundred Fifty Words” (The Jewel Hinged Jaw)

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Lost Art: What Happens to the Unread? And Why Does It Make Me Feel So Sad?

July 3, 2009 at 1:07 am (Art, Authors, Books, Failure, Obsession, Processes, Science Fiction and Fantasy, Success, The Fantastic, Uncategorized, Why) (, , , )

Darger’s private world centered around seven little blond moppets called the Vivian Girls, whose adventures include … But it’s a 23,000-page story, and while of course I always read every relevant source in the course of writing a review — and boy, was this one a doozy — it’s a bit involuted to go into in much detail. Actually, not even MacGregor has read more than a representative fraction of Darger’s writing, and it’s safe to say that nobody ever will.

-Gavin McNett, Salon.com review of “Henry Darger: In the Realms of the Unreal” by John M. MacGregor

Darger’s main project was a book called “The Story of the Vivian Girls, In What is Known as the Realms of the
Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, as caused by the Child Slave Rebellion.” At 15,000 pages, it is by far the longest novel ever written. (The paintings are illustrations of scenes from the novel.) The book is chaotic, repetitive, and totally insane, but there are many astonishingly beautiful passages. A few years ago I had the crazy idea of editing Darger’s novel into a cohesive series of novels — modeled after, say, Frank Baum’s “Oz” series. I say editing, but it would be more like translating, since Darger’s text is extraordinarily knotty and difficult. With enough work, I felt that his writing would have huge popular appeal. Unfortunately the Darger estate didn’t like the idea[…]

-Nathaniel Rich, questions from Blake Wilson

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Is It Horrible? or What Is Failure Anyway?

April 1, 2009 at 4:22 pm (Art, Failure, How, Obsession, Processes, Success, The Fantastic, Why) (, , , )

“I remember a distinct moment when I was about fifteen or sixteen when I made a decision. This is an awful thing to say, but I realized, Friends are taking up too much of my time, let’s put that on the back burner. My parents were a little weirded out. I was the opposite of most teenagers, and the opposite of my brother, where they had to try to keep him inside because he was always wanting to go out. But I made this really distinct choice where I had to be selfish, that was the only way I could see this, being an artist, working out for me. And I think, from that moment until this month, seriously, I’ve been going like a maniac. By the time I got to a point in my career where I could quit my job and focus only on making these drawings, it killed me to even take one night off. I mean, it would drive me insane, which is horrible, it’s a horrible way to be.”

Robin O’Neil, interviewed by Hillery Hugg

“The only thing that comes to mind is that I’m really interested in why things fail, or why I’m not happy with my work. It seems to make interviewers uncomfortable, or maybe feel that they will come across as arrogant, or that I will be offended. Of course, I’d be a little defensive if someone asked, “why is all your stuff so bad?”, but somewhere in the middle there are very interesting conversations to be had about what goes wrong.”

David McKean, interviewed at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast

“It felt lazy, and I didn’t like that, so I guess I enjoy the sort of punishment I give myself. Making mechanical-pencil drawings that are of this scale is completely ridiculous, and when people find out that’s how I make them, they don’t know what to think-I mean, I look at this [points to a photo of one of her larger drawings] and I know it took me maybe three months of solid work, and I always think people looking at it won’t know-they’ll think it took me a couple of weeks or something. There are two sides to that, though, since I don’t want it to be all about how much time it takes me. Whenever I give a talk or a lecture, people are really obsessed with talking only about my process and I usually put a stop to that early on because I want to make a point. I don’t want people just to go, “Wow, you’re really a slave to your work,” because that’s not all it’s about-the image is what it’s really about, even though the process is obviously a part of it, too.”

Robin O’Neil

“And then the actual battle begins. Usually, I spend a few days feeling that I’ve forgotten how to draw – and eating and going out for coffee and reading and playing the drums or the piano or watching a film until I just can’t put it off any more. Then I get into a routine, as soon as the first few images are done that are genuinely good and seem to have the right tone of voice; then I can see the whole book done, and it’s a gallop, or at least a determined canter, to the finishing line.”

David McKean

“But really, this floating world is based on the legendary tales of Magonia. The word originally came from a series of events in France around 800 AD, with folklore about ships navigating the clouds, and it was used to describe the place in the sky from which things-animals, objects-mysteriously fall. People really did believe in this story, that there were people who lived in the skies and had these cloud-ships, some people claimed they fell from these ships onto Earth. And there are thousands of reports all over the world about organic materials raining down: ants, blood, eels.”

Robin O’Neil

“To be sure, this aspect is critical and [O’Neil] often gets together to talk about invented stories with her friend Trenton Doyle Hancock, an artist who has developed an extraordinary cast of characters of his own. As undergraduates at East Texas State University, they both studied with Lee Baxter Davis who taught them “the labyrinth” approach to narrative drawing-starting with an idea and letting each new work dictate the path of the twisting plot.”

Michelle White

“There are usually two starting points, the text and what I’m interested in at the time. Sometimes they are irreconcilable, in which case I will exclusively concentrate on what the story demands, but usually it meets me half-way. I’ll make lots of notes all over the manuscript and make doodles in my sketchbooks, any ideas that come to mind. I will research appropriate references, if necessary, and start to draw main characters over and over again, until they start to feel right. I’ll usually plan out the whole book (if it’s a graphic novel) or the illustrated sections of the book thoroughly before starting finished work.”

Dave McKean

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Footnotes (2)

March 24, 2009 at 9:11 pm (Art, Authors, Books, How, Science Fiction and Fantasy) (, , , )

Related only so much as David Foster Wallace –> endnotes, endnotes –> footnotes, and footnotes –> Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (though also House of Leaves, and now I think I need to buy all these books and begin a section of my bookshelves devoted entirely to narrative with footnotes and endnotes):

Susanna Clarke Seminar on Crooked Timber

“For me it’s not so much that authors don’t always know best. It’s more, “Sorry guys, I’m not actually the author.” The author couldn’t come. The author has left the building. She left when the book was finished. I’m just the person who remains now she is gone. I may be able to help you because I seem to have a pile of her memories over here—also lots of her notes and stuff. But, while some of the memories are crystal sharp, others are fuzzy and quite a lot are missing. Ditto the notes and stuff. As for what she intended by writing this or that, in many cases she wouldn’t have been able to answer anyway. She never gave it any thought.”

Susanna Clarke

“Or, to put it another way, the novel is a sort of collision between two kinds of story. On the one hand, we have Austen’s brilliant, sometimes bitter, but fundamentally constrained stories of an England in which women especially are bound by their class and station to play certain roles…On the other hand, we have the stories of E.P. Thompson, Douglas Hay and other social historians, who write about the people who didn’t really feature in Jane Austen’s novels (the social historians got some stick too from feminist historians for not writing more about women, but at least made a start).”

Maria

“Anyway, the point is: there are ever so many ways to manage a sort of stable irony of understatement in which nothing about the teller’s tone seems to telegraph sufficient awareness of astonishing content. In the case of Clarke, there is a sort of additional, subtle calibration, in that the renaissance of English practical magic is astonishing to these Christian gentlemen; yet – being magic Christians from the start, merely lapsed ones – they are not astonished in the way we are. Twain might have appreciated it: one way to tell a humorous story is to tell it like a comic story, but make sure to collect applause and glance eagerly from face to face at ever so slightly the wrong moment.

It is tricky to say why this sort of stable irony is so satisfying. I certainly find it to be so. It isn’t because it is ‘realistic’, I think. Because it often isn’t.”

John Holbo

“It’s a story of the King of the Cats. The point of the tale isn’t what it seems to be. The very title of the book is misleading: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell aren’t nearly as important as they think they are. There’s a hidden story there, which is whispered through the gaps between the actions of the main protagonists.”

Henry

“At times the footnotes come to dominate the page with a crabbed blackness all down the lower 7/8, leaving the main text to meander above in a thin stream only a few lines wide; the reader must then decide whether she will actually finish any of the sentences in the main text, or will turn aside to learn, say, the fascinating story of the Master of Nottingham’s daughter, and how her wickedness was eventually repaid (pp. 240-243), and risk forgetting what the main text is on about.”

Belle Waring

“Instead of Giving Importance to People, [Science Fiction and Fantasy] can Humble People. It can be about turning our view, however briefly, away from ourselves; it can be about glimpsing that human beings are not always, forever, and irrevocably, the centre of the universe. If you are C.S. Lewis, writing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, you turn our view away from ourselves to God. (The children become kings and queens —which looks a bit like giving power to the weak, but as they are self-confident, middle-class English children, they never seem that weak or small.) If you are Alan Garner, writing Thursbitch, you turn our view away from ourselves to an actual, historical valley in northern England which stands for all the places in northern England resonating with their own, not-human placeness. I’m with Alan Garner: the landscape of England (particularly Northern England) is the bit of magic we can actually see and touch for ourselves.”

Susanna Clarke

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Endnotes (1)

March 24, 2009 at 8:52 pm (Art, Authors, Books, How) (, , , )

“It doesn’t show artists suffering just like everyone else because their suffering appears to be work-related and therefore has a different, more sanctified, aura.”

Maja Djikic

“But the ∞-drove-Cantor-mad stuff was dreck, the very worst kind of appeal to a flabby, unconsidered pop version of what you just now called the “‘mad genius’ syndrome.” The origin, motives, and contexts of Cantor’s actual achievement got little serious treatment in this unnamed book, basically I think because airline-initials and/or autistic-room-description felt the math would be too dull for a mainstream audience. What math there is in that book is sexed up by making it seem like ∞ was some transcendent forbidden terrain that Cantor lost his mind trying to negotiate. Whereas the fact is that it’s all but certain that Cantor was bipolar, that his professional insecurities and travails aggravated the illness but didn’t cause it, that most of his worst episodes and hospitalizations occurred when he was older and his best work was long behind him.”

David Foster Wallace interviewed by Dave Eggers

“I’m a little uncomfortable with such a smooth narrative arc for a life that was quite obviously sundered frequently; the implication which can be gleaned from the article that Wallace’s fight against depression was conducted in parallel to his wrestling with this novel is deeply unsettling, as is the further implication, noted by Garth Risk Hallberg that “one wouldn’t want to succumb to the temptation to say that this last novel pushed Wallace over the edge.”

The lurid romanticism of such a notion dissipates a bit when Wallace’s life is plotted according to his personal geography, rather than according to his creative output.”

Andrew Seal

“At the same time, he was something of a failure. He was not a da Vinci. His book on infinity was an explication of the concept, not a mathematical treatise. More importantly, he came to fruition with Infinite Jest, but the book is a terrible mess. It remains in desperate need of an editor; perhaps, had he found a collaborator able to focus his talent, Wallace could have produced something as enduring as Thomas Wolfe’s baggy monsters. His short stories were a study in diminishing returns. The Girl With Curious Hair was pretty good, while Brief Interviews with Hideous Men was terrible except for the title story. It is up to us, looking at his work, to try to understand what was eating him—not only driving him to despair, but first damming up his talent and undermining what work he did produce.”

Joseph Kugelmass

“So Wallace’s project required him to invent a language and a stance of his own. “I want to author things that both restructure worlds and make living people feel stuff,” he wrote to his editor Michael Pietsch while he was working on his second novel, “Infinite Jest,” which Little, Brown published in 1996. He knew that such proclamations made him seem a holy fool. In the interview with McCaffery, he said, “It seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies . . . in be[ing] willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow. Even now I’m scared about how sappy this’ll look in print, saying this. And the effort to actually to do it, not just talk about it, requires a kind of courage I don’t seem to have yet.” He also said, “All the attention and engagement and work you need to get from the reader can’t be for your benefit; it’s got to be for hers.”

D. T. Max

“If work is going shitty, I try to make sure that at least a couple hours in the morning are carved out for this disciplined thing called Work. If it’s going well, I often work in the p.m. too, although of course if it’s going well it doesn’t feel disciplined or like uppercase Work because it’s what I want to be doing anyway. What often happens is that when work goes well all my routines and disciplines go out the window simply because I don’t need them, and then when it starts not going well I flounder around trying to reconstruct disciplines I can enforce and habits I can stick to.”

Wallace interviewed by Eggers

To read: Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace

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