Wednesday, June 01, 2005

The Next Generation

In the last week I've read a bunch of chapbooks, including Ben Rosenbaum's Other Cities and Christopher Rowes' Bittersweet Creek and Other Stories; three issues of Rabid Transit, a little magazine put out by a group that calls itself The Ratbastards, and Tim Pratt and Heather Shaw's Flytrap, another little magazine. I read some other stuff, too, some of which I can't find in my office at the moment. All of it alternative publications from small presses. All of it, to my surprise, slipstream/fantasy/magic realism. All of it by people who I think of as the kids, the new stuff, the next generation (although many of the kids are now forty.) And I'll talk about some stories which are a couple of years old. But worth checking out.

I like slipstream/fantasy/magic realism a great deal. I like Carol Emshwiller, Howard Waldrop, Kelly Link and Karen Joy Fowler. I read Crank. I've written some (and it's been pretty well received.) But I found myself dismayed. Some of it was good, some of it was not so good. I particularly liked a piece by Nick Mamatas in Rabid Transit: A Mischief of Rats (copyright 2003) called "joanierules.bloggermax.com" where a fairly normal girl, who posts things in her blog about how she went to a friend's party and got hit on by a creepy guy, has a post one day as follows.

3.10.05 - OH MY GAWD!!!

Really sorry I haven't updated this in awhile, but I have been very busy... [some good stuff cut for space. -Onyx]

...I was walking up 6th Ave and then I saw God filling up the sky. Really! GOD! He was everywhere all at once; beard, muscles, blazing eyes, streams of light coming out from behind his back, arms from horizon to horizon. And He pointed at me and told me He wanted me, Joanie, to raise an army and drive the English out of France! The voice, it was like sitting on a thunderbolt, I felt my whole body, the whole street, shake, but nobody else seemed to notice it, or when I fell to my knees. I'm agnostic!

The blog turns to being the story of a present day Joan of Arc. It's wry and funny and surprisingly poignant by turns. It's a clever idea story, but it feels the right length for a clever idea story.

Also good, David Moles' "Five Irrational Histories" and David Lomax's "How To Write an Epic Fantasy Novel" (the latter suffers from being a bit too long, I think, but does the postmodern thing of telling a story while pretending to just be informing the reader on how to do their own story--again, strange and poignant by turns.) (Both in Rabid Transit: Petting Zoo, copyright 2004.)

Flytrap: a little zine with teeth (number 4/May 2005) has a story by Jeff Ford (about a kind of performance artist--did I mention that I am immediately a bit suspect of stories about artists? China Mieville does it a lot, but he at least seems to be aware that he is echoing the cliches of the 19th century.) Although nothing stood out for me like the Mamatas piece of the two from Rabid Transit: Petting Zoo, it was a good read. The magazines were all uneven, but Asimov, Analog and F&SF are uneven.

Bittersweet Creek and Other Stories (copyright 2003, Small Beer Press) is a short, swift read. Christopher Rowe can write the socks off a snake as evidenced by "The Voluntary State", his Nebula nominated story. The five stories in Bittersweet Creek are all set in rural Kentucky and Tennessee except for the last, "Men of Renown". They are all before pre-telephone and although they are lyrical about life, they are also unflinching about things like girls getting married at fourteen and the violence of rural society. They are ghost stories and revenge stories. They don't have the wild, strange and funny quality of "The Voluntary State" and unlike "The Voluntary State" none of them are science fiction. (You could argue with me on the first story, "Baptism at Bittersweet Creek" but it reads to me as a kind of faery story reversed, where the denizen of some other world gets trapped in ours. He could be from an alternate universe, but his special skills, whistling and communing with animals, as well as his muteness, all feel fantastical to me.)

Other Cities, by Benjamin Rosenbaum (copyright 2003, Small Beer Press) is equally a treat. Fourteen short shorts, each an evocation of a different fantastical city, that is more than the sum of its parts.

Amea Amaau--or Double A, or Dub, or Dub-Dub, or DB, or Popstop, as it is also sometimes called--is a new and gleaming city in a matrix of six hundred and forty-three cities exactly like it. Somewhere in the terribly exciting part of the world. The citizens of Popstop--but there are no citizens, for everyone who slept in Amea Amaau tonight will be moving on in the morning. They will roll out of silver water beds, vacuum the night's spit and eye good and wrinkles from their faces with handheld vacuums considerately installed in every wall...

Each is short (that's nearly half of "Amea Amaau", which is one of the shortest) and each turns on a wry note at the end. They are literary magic tricks and I read to see what he would do with each one, and with each one he did something different.

So why am I dismayed?

After I'd read the lot (over the course of a day, mostly) I came away feeling a little as if I'd had cookies for dinner. The stories were often fairly smart stuff. But the majority of them felt neither fish nor fowl. We're post Borges and the although these stories were often clever, they weren't astonishingly clever. They often were about things I already knew. That sex is mysterious. That when we are titillated by pain, we lose a little piece of our humanity. There are stories about the need for self-actualization, affirmations of the things we all believe. Most of these stories play at being strange, but underneath, a lot of them aren't very strange at all. Somehow they end up falling between literary and genre rather than, well, slipstreaming. They often felt like literary-lite. They had lovely images, competent writing.

I thought about Kelly Link and what makes her stories stand out, and part of what they have is a narrative voice. I'm thinking, for example, of the narrator of "Carnation, Lilly, Lilly, Rose" who is dead and stuck in a afterlife which consists of a rather creepy hotel by an even creepier sea. He can remember he's dead, and he misses his wife. He can't remember her name and he keeps trying names, hoping one will sound right. The feeling is of barely contained anxiety and tedium--a common enough experience in life (it's been said that war, for example, consists of long periods of boredom punctuated by periods of terror) but there's no affirmation. Not even escape. No self-actualization. No heavenly 12-step program after which the protagonist gets to deliver some affirming life-lesson. Other than "joanierules.bloggermax.com" I found very few stories where the author seemed in control in that way, where the writer was setting a tone, maybe a different tone than the first person narrator. I wanted more artifice in these stories ('artifice' comes from the same root word as 'art'--it's what we writers do.)

The stories weren't really doing things that would make them publishable by the commercial magazines. Fine, neither was James Joyce, which was why he was published by a friend rather than, say, Knopf. I'm tickled to death that people who can't find a commercial publisher are publishing themselves. I think this is the place where many of the brightest and the best of the next generation are polishing their craft. I find it interesting to note that Chris Rowe's fiction became more interesting, more powerful, more strange and new, when he added science fiction into the mix. I want to push a lot of these young writers--not towards sf per say, but to something more. Do something with your fiction--narrator, science fiction, strangeness, unsettling truths, humor. Push a little harder.

It's the same thing I tell myself I have to do with my own work.

107 Comments:

Blogger Onyx said...

They've started a movement.

From Boing Boing:

http://www.boingboing.net/2005/06/01/gag_sf_literary_move.html

5:16 PM  
Blogger Brickworks said...

I've read a chunk of those stories (the issues of Rabid Transit, I think) and find myself thinking the same thing--they're clever, immaculately written...but I want MORE. They're like the lovely, tiny images from a pinhole camera.

My polemical thought of the day: many of these writers are involved in "movements" which they call slipstream, or magic realism, or interstitial, or infernokrusher, or whatever. But is it just me, or do these movements have less to do with what they're writing and more to do with who they're hanging out with? Does it seem like whether an author is labeled as part of one of these movements has less to do with what that author is writing and more with whether or not they've been "annointed" by those involved in the movement?

Did that make any sense at all?

10:51 AM  
Blogger Onyx said...

It does. And I think movements are always partly about who you're hanging out with. When T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were hanging out together, they drew sparks off each other.

With luck, Infernokrusher will raise the energy level of the writing as well as the participants.

But it's equally possible that a movement just makes everybody feel good about themselves rather than making them hungry.

3:48 PM  
Blogger David Moles said...

(So, pseudonymous posting but no anonymous comments?)

If this is a movement, it's all about who you're hanging out with.

Nice piece. The only part I'd really take issue with is I'm tickled to death that people who can't find a commercial publisher are publishing themselves -- most of the folks you mention, if not all of them, haven't had more than the usual amount of trouble with that.

But you're right -- we all need to stretch ourselves more. Still, cut us some slack, eh? We haven't been in the game that long, most of us. And two years is a long time in Rosenbaum-years and Rowe-years.

11:23 AM  
Blogger Tim Pratt said...

It's worth noting that Flytrap doesn't have any particular dedication to publishing "strange" stories or stories that aren't likely to be commercially successful. We publish stories we like, period. I tend to like contemporary fantasy, so on issues when I edit fiction, I publish a lot of that. My co-editor's tastes lean more toward the realistic/erotic than my own, so in issues she edits, there's more of that. We're not explicitly looking to publish "slipstream" or "new weird" or even always SF/fantasy, though we like that stuff.

I like the ideas behind this blog, and look forward to seeing what else y'all have to say.

And ditto what David said. Most of us are just starting out. Personally, I like to think I'm a long way from the top of my game, and that my best work is ahead of me.

2:40 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

And I'll ditto what Tim said, and add just this. Nice read on "Baptism at Bittersweet Creek," that's it exactly. Also, I go by Christopher, not Chris.

Good luck with this blog--I think y'all have made a strong start.

3:47 PM  
Blogger Karen Anne Mitchell said...

Interesting commentary. I was struck by the statement at the end about people who can't find a commercial publisher deciding to publish themselves, since the whole topic of self-publishing has inspired such passionate disagreement among writers (take a look at the blog POD-dy Mouth, for example).

There are some stories that do fall into the cracks between genres, or which are seen as too edgy for commercial publishers to take a risk on. Some are good and some are not, but it's good to see that there are those who have an interest in reading them.

Best of luck with this blog; it looks to be quite interesting.

5:43 PM  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

Interesting new blog. I like it. As to whether these people are in a "movement" because they're hanging out together rather than because of what they're writing--I think it's both. Many of us became friends because of what we were writing. We gravitated towards each other's words before we even met in person. I know that's how I became friends with Kelly Link, who I had announced at my Clarion class in 1998 was my favorite author. No one knew who she was. She had published only two stories. Later that summer I went to my first convention and met her by chance and just talked and talked to her. We became friends over the years that followed, but I had first loved Kelly's (then only two published) stories before I loved Kelly.

I understand the drift to want to conclude people are hanging out in crowds for various reasons, but in many cases it's that people just like each other's work, have an affinity for it, and then you hope you like the person, which isn't always the case.

6:25 PM  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

Oh, and what David and Tim said, it's not that we can't get published in "professional" magazines (in fact, we do). And also, we are just starting out, and we've got time to develop I should think. ;-)

6:27 PM  
Blogger Frank said...

Can you offer some examples of stories published in the last two years that you think *do* push harder?

6:35 PM  
Blogger David Moles said...

Well, Mr. Dark points out "The Voluntary State". I'm fond of Ben's "Biographical Notes to 'A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-Planes' by Benjamin Rosenbaum", even if I did publish it myself. At any rate I don't think either of them can be accused of being "literary-lite".

7:09 PM  
Blogger David Moles said...

Sorry -- not Mr. Dark -- Onyx. Overscroll.

7:10 PM  
Blogger Ellen Datlow said...

And of course, David, both stories you mention (Rowe and Rosenbaum) were published in commercial ventures, not self-published :-)

10:11 PM  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

This isn't in the last two years, but in the last five, I believe. Maybe six at the outset. Kelly Link's "Travel's With the Snow Queen". It ended up winning a Tiptree, and it was self-published in the first issue of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, I believe.

After that, I'd also say Alan Deniro's "Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead" published in Fence, a literary magazine, pushed boundaries. Though I doubt many scifi readers got to see that one, even though it's scifi-fabulism.

4:57 AM  
Blogger Frank said...

I was asking Onyx for examples, actually.

12:48 PM  
Blogger Onyx said...

Frank, I think Carol Emshwiller is always out there. Her stories on scifi.com, "The Being of It All" and "All of Us Can Almost" resist the conventions. "The Being of It All" for example, begins sounding like a story of self-actualization. It sounds like the story of the shy woman and dog who find their inner strength after a voice from the sky tells them to be all that they can be. But Emshwiller complicates things when the man shows up. Then it could easily slide into a couple of conventional directions (the all-men-are-brutes story, thankfully not much in favor these days, or the woman-and-man-meet-and-find-they-are -attracted story.) But Emshwiller undercuts the expected conventions every time.

In the end the narrative leaps. The dog wants them to 'both be boys' and to 'both wear red' and what that means feels complex and interesting to me.

Sorry to take so long to respond. Work is eating me alive. I was working until 10:00 last night.

9:46 AM  
Anonymous Vera Nazarian said...

I am so glad you mentioned Kelly Link's "Carnation, Lilly, Lilly, Rose" -- a great example of a truly memorable, brilliant piece that stays with you.

But I would argue that there is indeed a "resolution" of sorts and it is not just a "tone" story.

8:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What's the resolution in Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose? I'm reading it entirely as a tone story, like the painting: can a writer faithfully capture that brief moment of purple twilight, that brief moment between being alive and being dead?

What's the resolution?

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