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, 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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July 1, 2009 at 7:57 pm (Authors, Books, Failure, Life, Love, Pop culture, Processes, Science Fiction and Fantasy, Uncategorized) (, , , , , , )

“Because he knew he was a disappointment to you. And that you wouldn’t get mad or yell at him, and he wanted you to. Because he thought that if you cared about him, you’d ask him if he was seeing someone else. He thought if you really liked him, you’d be jealous, and he knew you weren’t.”

-A White Bear, “Enough Rope

You have a chapter that lists all the things that you can’t do when you’re married. All those things are just about living with a roommate.

That’s partly true. But a lot of them are about changing each other, and preventing your own anxiety about the other person stopping loving you. If they don’t come on time, they’re out having an affair–which you wouldn’t be worried about with a roommate. Or how their behavior reflects on you–if they tell a bad joke in public or have bad table manners. I think there are a lot of ways mates try to reform each other just for control–controlling people comes natural to us.

-Laura Kipnis, interviewed by David Bowman

I think if you take a look at the economic distribution, there should be an entire strike of the workforce tomorrow. So how is it that we live in a culture that is so acquiescent that we believe all the lies told by politicians and these economic programs that benefit the rich? Part of what I’m interested in doing in this book is to show how domesticity is the training ground for complacence–all the endless rules and edicts of love are training to larger forms of passivitiy.

-Kipnis, interviewed by Bowman

Nehring uses models such as Edna St. Vincent Millay, Emily Dickinson, Frida Kahlo, and Margaret Fuller to illustrate how women can be consumed with love and still be creative, intelligent, and productive. In fact, for many of the women profiled in the book, love actually fueled their creativity. Wollstonecraft, who had already tried to kill herself over spurned love, wrote her great Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark for a man.

-Jessa Crispin, “Beating Hearts

Kipnis acknowledges that love affairs can feel completely transforming; with this new third party, you can surrender to long-buried feelings; ordinary conversations glisten and gleam. “But what really keeps you glued to the phone till all hours of the night–conversations sparkling with soulfulness and depth you hadn’t know you possessed, exchanging those whispered intimacies–is a very diferent new love-object: yourself. The new beloved mirrors this fascinating new self back to you, and admit it, you’re madly in love with both of them.”

-Stephanie Zacharek reviewing Laura Kipnis

But, good God, that desperate desire to be alone, not because she hates other people but because it’s so complex and impenetrable and anxiety-producing to figure out how to be something other than herself for other people–that’s my childhood, and something I struggle with constantly as an adult. Alone, I’ve always felt held, self-comforting, fine. I crave contact with other people (real friendships, sex, etc.), but I always need to come back to being alone.

I loved the Dork Yearbook pictures because they reminded me of this feeling. Video games, math puzzles, science projects, music, endless reading, hours of daydreaming–it’s all masturbation, right? It’s all finding a way to make being alone more satisfying, more comforting, than being with other people.

-A White Bear, “What’s the Opposite of Nostalgia?


Or Something Like It.

“What frustrates me is that–and it became apparent tonight–is that you do italics adhere to some kind of code of good manners, proper behavior, or the right things to do, and yet you are so emotionally lazy that you are incapable of implementing the only valid reason that any such code ever came about: to put people at ease, to make them feel better, to promote social communion. If you ever achieve that, it’s only to the credit of whoever designed the behavior code a hundred years back. The only way you seem to be able to criticize your own conduct parenthesis at one point I watched the thought march across your face; you aren’t very good at hiding your feelings; and people like that simply cannot afford to count on appearances close parenthesis is that your version of the code was ten years out of date. Which is to so monumentally miss the point I almost wanted to cry.


Maybe because you quote feel you love me unquote you feel I should take you on as a case. I’m not going to. Because there are other people, some of whome I love and some of whom I don’t, who need help too and, when I give it, it seems to accomplish something the results of which I can see. Not to mention things I need help in. In terms of the emotional energies I have, you look hopeless.”

-Samuel R. Delany, Trouble on Triton

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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).”


“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.”


“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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Luddite Update

March 15, 2009 at 10:17 pm (Books, Graphic Novels/Comics, Science Fiction and Fantasy) (, , , , , )

Finished reading in the past week:

Mostly speculative fiction this past week, a welcome change from the relentless realism of Crime and Punishment, which occasionally made leaps into a fascinating character-study, but mostly just frustrated me. Also, I had the same problem with dialogue in Crime and Punishment as I did with Haruki Murakami’s Wind-up Bird Chronicles and Kafka on the Shore: all the characters sounded like the same, slightly stilted speaker. I’m thinking it may be the translation, rather than the original authors in either case, but I don’t know.

The View from the Seventh Layer, Kevin Brockmeier
Very well written speculative fiction/fables. Brockmeier’s prose has a smoothness which feels like being read aloud to; it may be in the cadence, I’m not sure. Occasionally the plots are too mild to provide much kick (or to stay in the memory), but the title story is fantastic. It’s paragraphs are made up of occasionally disconnected sentences, switching between the current action and previous descriptions, giving the story a cyclical feel. The four fables in the book were meaningful and touching, startling in their imagination, and with lovely titles, my favorite being, “A Fable Ending in the Sound of a Thousand Parakeets.”  “The Year of Silence,” found in this collection, can be heard through WNYC’s Selected Shorts.

“She was carrying the husks of the insects outside on a dustpan when a blast of wind sent them whirling off toward the palmetto barrens. People who read Tom Wolfe feel that they have never abandoned their ground, that it is the world around them that has snapped free of its foundations. The sheet of embossed tin that the hurricane had ripped from her house had sailed almost half a block after the wind lifted it out of the palm tree, landing finally in the pool behind the kindergarten. Olivia paged through her copy of Insects of the Greater United States when she got home and discovered that the bugs were neither grasshoppers nor mosquitoes, but mayflies.”
“The View from the Seventh Layer,” Kevin Brockmeier

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro
Well written, though not in the same mesmerizing fashion as Brockmeier’s writing. I imagine this is partly because NLMG is written in first person, so it would be distracting for it to be written in a style like Brockmeier’s. The story is well-told, though I found the important, long conversation at the end to be a little too much of an info-dump/reveal than fit the rest of the book.

Strangers in Paradise, Book 1
, Terry Moore
This was entertaining for one book, but didn’t draw me into continuing with the others. There’s a blurb on the front from Neil Gaiman that says, “What most people don’t know about love, sex, and relations with other human beings would fill a book. Strangers in Paradise is that book.” That may be, but I found the characters to be a little too caricatured (yes, even for a comic) to hold my interest. I may try again with Book 2 some other time.

Currently reading:

Magic for Beginners, Kelly Link
One thing to mention now: Link has no problem with leaving things unexplained, a characteristic she has in common with Brockmeier, and distinguishing her from Ishiguro. These are fantasy/speculative fiction type stories, where the reader is thrown into situations that aren’t quite “normal,” where even the humans act on information that’s just outside the reader’s grasp. The obvious downside to the lack of explanation is the frustration it can cause for readers who go in expecting it all to be laid out for them, but the huge upside is the way the stories and images continue to sit in the mind (in my mind, anyway) long after the book has been set aside. It’s fantasy as the truly strange.

Hoping to read in the future:
Sarah Canary, Karen Joy Fowler (Watch Nancy Pearl’s interview with her)
A Fine and Private Place, Peter S. Beagle (Interview on io9)

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Impossible Adaptation

March 14, 2009 at 10:45 pm (Adaptation, Books, Graphic Novels/Comics, Originality, Pop culture) (, , )

“The question of essences remains at the heart of the adaptive act: how to make a second version of a first thing, of a book or film or poem or vegetable, or of yourself, that is successfully its own, new thing and yet carries with it the essence, the spirit, the soul of the first thing, the thing that you yourself, or your book or poem or film or your pre-pickle mango or lime, originally were.”

Salman Rushdie

“To read the comic is to see the illusion of something actually happening before your eyes; to go back and appreciate the fruit of three twelve-hour days is to—what? Look? Perceive? Read differently? —Whatever it is, it’s definitely a key component of comics, a thing we can do there and take advantage of nowhere else. ‘The most obvious sense,’ says Wolk, ‘in which Watchmen is tethered to comics is the fact that it’s specifically about comics’ form and content and readers’ preconceptions of what happens in a comic book story. Beneath that surface, though, it relies on being a comic book for its crucial sense of time and chronology.'”

Kip Manley

“[N]ow I want to focus on Snyder.   I’m less concerned with his film than its conceit: that through slavish imitation Moore and Gibbon’s novel can transition from page to screen. The central concern in Watchmen is with the experience of reading comic books.  The scene of reading is of obvious import: the youth reading Tales of the Black Freighter reminds the reader that the thing in their hands was shaped by an escapist tradition.”

Scott Eric Kaufmann

“And so my problems with the film can be reduced to two major differences it has with the book: the characterization of Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias, and the ending, because between the two of those, it meant that not only did the film have no plot, it didn’t understand the question it was meant to investigate.”


“Why is this significant?  Because it demonstrates that Snyder never grappled with his source material in formal or structural terms.  The narrative techniques that contributed to his own sense of the book’s significance went unrecognized; in their place is the kind of fanboy literalism that compels people to write open letters to Peter Jackson accusing him of assaulting Tolkien.”

Kaufman, again. (Tolkien link included in original.)
(see “How to teach comics responsibly in a composition class” for an example of the techniques used in Watchmen.)

“But I wouldn’t be surprised if the same problem crops up over and over—Moore writes plots that don’t make sense unless you don’t shy away from the radical political implications, and who has the guts to do that inside the major studio system?”

Amanda Marcotte

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