Thursday, June 30, 2005

Poll!

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Express your opinion! What's the state of SF today?

Anonymity and Pseudonymity

To my surprise, people have been discussing the Dark Cabal in blogs here and there, and the discussion is mostly about-- anonymity.
People seem to be mostly against it.
I'd rather discuss fiction, but since far too many of the discussions here end up with people commenting on anonymity, if I put it in a separate topic, at least we will have a rightful place for the discussion.
My thinking on the subject has very much evolved. The anonymous thing did seem sort of silly to me, at first. My initial thought was, what the hell, I'll go along, but I didn't really make much of an attempt to conceal my identity.
Now that the cabal is in motion, I am seeing that there are practical advantages to anonymity. I think that maybe the secret masters of the cabal really did have some clue.
Onyx posted, right up at the beginning, one motive: Onyx doesn't want to be sent books with the hope (by the sender) that the book might be talked up (or-- worse-- that the sender might be fishing for a Nebula recommendation).
Well, we all have reasons-- probably, we all have different reasons. That one doesn't ring my chimes.
I'm just about the opposite: I love books, and getting free books in the mail sounds like Christmas to me. Great, bring 'em on, send me more!
(but, chances are something like one in a million that I'd end up writing about it here, or rec it for a Nebula. My "To read" stack right now is about nine feet high, and my reading tastes are peculiar.)
I've noticed other advantages, though, to being pseudonymous. It does give some amount of unexpected freedom. Primarily, I am realizing that in normal life I self-censor a lot. Yes, that's right, I worry what people think about me. Yeah, I'm sure you're so high-minded, you never worry about what people think. Sure. So call me a coward.
Pseudonymously, I don't have to worry about what a friend might think if I write something less than glowing about his/her work. And editors, as well. Editors do read, and if I decide to dis a particular publication, or an editor's tastes, or publisher, well, under my own name I'd think twice about that. I might be trying to sell to that editor next month, and I'd probably think better of it, even if they deserve it.
Conversely, I don't have to worry that people are going to think I'm trying to suck up if I write a glowing review about a work, or about an editor.
As a psudonymous persona, I don't have to worry about expressing a controversial opinion. I don't have to worry that if people going to think I'm a Philistine if I criticize a writer who seems to be regarded as a god in the field (but whose fiction I find unreadable). I can express controversial political opinions, if I want, and not worry that people will think me a Neanderthal, nor weak-livered liberal scum. I can even express opinions that might get me fired at work, if that's what I happen to be thinking.
Overall, I have a lot of more freedom to write what I'm thinking, and not worry what other people are going to think of me.

Been Peek posted in his blog Livejournal posted a comment from the film director Paul Schrader when a member from the audience asked him why he didn't critique film any more. His reply: " You can't be a filmmaker and a critic at the same time. To fulfill either task, you have to be in the position where you're not worried about upsetting anyone.
Exactly.
So, those were my reasons for continuing to post pseudonymously. Maybe next week I'll think differently, and you won't see me around. Maybe you'll start seeing my real name (Kurt Vonnegut) posting here, and people will say, "what ever happened to that guy Johnny Dark, used to post here?"
If those reasons don't make sense, well, here's an alternate reason for anonymity.
We're setting up a cabal; a secret society, and if we're going to have a secret cabal, let's do it right, damn it! What kind of self-respecting secret society would it be if everybody knew who we are-- not a very secret one, now, is it? If we're going to have a cabal, masks and portentous names are de rigueur.
So there.
So, I'll say, fuck 'em if they can't take a joke. This is a spot where we came together to discuss fiction pseudonymously. If pseudonymity bothers people, they should have gone somewhere else, like here or here or here

I've been using the words anonymous and pseudonymous without a whole lot of distinction so far. As a final note, let me advocate for pseudonymity over anonymity. In some of the threads here, people have been taking advantage of the ability to post anonymously, with some degree of resulting confusion: one person made a reply directed at somebody who was posting as "anonymous," which was responded to by a different person who was posting as "anonymous," and both were somewhat confused with yet another person posting as "anonymous" -- purely for the sake of following the discussion, there's an advantage in using the "other" option to post-- you don't need to use your real name, but it's helpful if you do use a name.

P.S. My real name is not really Kurt Vonnegut. (It's John Updike.)
P.P.S. OK, it's really not John Updike either.

More Reading

A couple of stories from Strange Horizons .

Happily Ever Awhile by Ruth Nestvold. Nice, well written (and don’t I just hate those comments that start out “nice, well written, but…”) But…I felt like I’d read it before. It’s an “after the fairy tale,” when Ella (of Cinder fame) discovers that married life isn’t quite as blissful as it was made out to be. It doesn’t have a tragic ending, but rather kind of a quiet ending of domestic acceptance. Still…Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” covered this ground. And I feel like I’ve been reading this kind of story for ages.

Pursued by a Bear by Hannah Wolf Bowen is wonderful for its sensory detail: “…the furnace of her breath and the chalkboard scrape of tooth on bone.” *shiver* It’s the story of Joss, who has survived a bear attack, and who turns out to be the last man to be attacked by a wild bear. This is a future where the “wild” has been taken out of the wilderness in order to make it safe—no more wild bears, moose, etc. “Pursued by a Bear” is a lovely, bittersweet portrait. But it isn’t a story, I think. No arc, no build up, no moment of "ah-hah!" That I expect those things may make me terribly conventional. But when those things are missing, I end up thinking, "Hm, how nice," and nothing more.

By chance, as I’m writing this there’s a report on the radio about the investigation into the mauling of Roy Horn (of Siegfried and Roy) by a tiger.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

There's a Hole in the City by Richard Bowes

So sometimes I still get a chance to read short fiction. I had some time last night to read There's a Hole in the City on scifi.com.

If I were to sum it up, it's a ghost story set in the days immediately after 9/11. I'm not going to go into the plot much more than that. The plot's fine, but it's not what I'm walking away with.

I've read a few 9/11 stories, some more explicit than others. Michael Kandel's Windows on the World was probably the first. By way of disclosure, I spent about three months working at the Rizzoli in the Winter Garden of the World Finincial Center, looking up at the towers. I don't live in New York now, and I haven't been back since 2001. These stories are hard for me to read, and the times I've tried to addess this subject matter, it's defeated me.

Bowes and Kandel are part of a healing process the same way a physician cutting out necrotic tissue from a wound is. People are starting to move that day into a realm of mythology. Bowes does it by echoing the New Yorkers lost in other tragedies, large and small. He takes something huge and ties it to characters and events in the protagonist's life, and I think he's trying to make this small enough to comprehend. I think he's trying to give us a window on it so that we (meaning, of coure, I) can actually think about it and start making sense or peace or something rather than just staring, slack-jawed as Job when God asked where he'd been when the mountains were made.

And that's a huge thing to take on.

I find Bowes story affecting, but the fantastic element isn't the part that moved me most. I found it hard to read it as fiction -- it felt too much like an article or a blog entry. It felt too real.

In the end, I don't believe in Bowes' ghosts. But I do believe in his people, and in their pain and confusion and sense of being lost, but at least being lost together.

Maybe that's enough.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Safe Light's Full On Men's Movement Rant

We're at the late 80s in the comments on Johnny's gender fiction post, and folks are getting a little tired of scrolling down that far. The suggestion came up to start a new top-level thread, and so, without askin' anyone's permission, here's the full men's movement rant that I didn't go on there. If it's not interesting to y'all, blow it off.

So, first off, we don't have a men's movement. We've had a couple stabs at it by Bly and Keen and the Promise Keepers, but all those are reactionary impulses. They're trying to reinforce an idea of masculinity that's already the default -- reclaiming inner warriors, blaming mothers for making us soft, becoming the kind of stand-up patriarch God wants and so on. (By comparison, imagine a woman's movement that involved the suffragettes demanding that women get more barefoot and pregnant, lower their wages as is only appropriate, reclaim their inner second-class citizen status and push for the days when they were valuable property. The "men's movement" we have now is about that surreal.)

Point made. We don't have one.

Next point, there are some reasons we don't have one.

The women's movement had a real boost in that its initial emotional center was justified outrage. Rage is a great community building emotion, and especially good when you and a bunch of folks like you have damn good reason to be pissed off. It promotes organization and political action, and all in all, it's worked well as an organizing force. (See my caveats about it as a rhetorical device.)

The emotion that men have in common isn't rage. It's despair. We are, after all, putatively the top of the sexual food chain. We get paid more, we hold most of the positions of power in government and business, we live a lives of unearned deference etc. etc. There's very little that inspires righteous anger in the male experience. There's no lightning rod that can take the blame for our pain and alienation and emptiness. And so, despair.

And despair really sucks as an organizing principle. The one thing about despair is, if you can see a way out of it, it's not despair. Hopelessness is one of the hallmarks of the feeling. Getting a bunch of men together saying:

"Hi, I'm Tom. I'm in despair."
"Hi, I'm Dave. I'm in despair."
"Hi, I'm Mike. After talking to my girlfriend about her experience, I feel vaguely guilty for all the rapes that have ever occurred even though I didn't perpatrate any of them, and vaguely resentful of her for bringing it up."

It's not such a good start.

Another reason we don't have a righteous men's movement is that we haven't figured out homophobia yet.

One of the interesting things about the women's movement was its relationship with birth control. The suffragettes were going way before the pill. Wary Wollstoncraft, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, etc. etc. Lots of folks doing lots of work. But in the general perception (it's been my experience) folks conflate the women's movement with the 60s and 70s, and the sexual revolution.

I'm going to draw a parallel here. I suggest that the worst insults you can level against a woman are slut and whore. A woman with an aggressive, open sexuality is, rhetorically, the lowest of the low. (As opposed to the virgin or the mother, who we're all supposed to like and respect. "Good girls," right?) The women's movement is associated with the sexual revolution because that's when women started undermining that insult. By seriously considering sexual desire and power roles, we got to have the sort of conversation that grounds out the charge from that particular tool of control.

Now, call a man a whore or a slut, it's really no big deal. We are, after all, supposed to be screwing everything in a skirt, our Brobdingnagian phalli preceding us into the room, right? Sexual promiscuity is a sort of left-handed virtue for men. It's not symmetrical.

If you want to insult a man, you call him a faggot or a sissy. Fear of being thought homosexual is the threat that's most nearly parallel to a woman being called a slut. And the things that are prohibited to men -- vulnerability, need for nurturance, emotional connections to other men, etc -- are ascribed to homosexuals.

The first thing a men's movement would need to have is straight men insisting that queers were real men too. *That* would require a radical reworking of the ideas and definitions of masculinity.

So that's we don't have one yet.

If we did, it would be an interesting thing. The quasi-men's movements we've had have all been in an adversarial relationship with women. My guess is that a genuine one would be a compliment to a legitimate women's movement. There would be some real points of contention (the use of sexual desire to control behavior, for instance, looks like an *ugly* conversation to me -- useful, but ugly).

But a men's movement wouldn't be a women's movement for guys. It would be a new conversation. And yes, I think speculative fiction would be one of the only places in our culture where that conversation could start.

Anyway, that's how it seems to me.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Three books I... uh... haven't read

Okay. I suck. I'll cop to it. Here I was meaning to read and comment meaningfully on work in the field, and while I have managed to be possibly the last person on earth to read "Sargeant Chip" (which I liked very much), I've let my real life sideline me.

I did want to ask the community a question though. Partially inpsired by the above Sargeant Chip, what have y'all read recently that takes a strong political stance and still remains decent as fiction?

Specifically, I was recommeded:

Candas Jane Dorsey's A Paradigm of Earth
Louise Marley's The Masquirade
Liz Williams' Nine Pieces of Sky

I've already picked up the Dorsey. Since I clearly fail outright as a critic, what's the best stuff out there that still engages with the world?

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Now slinking into a Dark Cabal near you

I was invited to join some time ago, but needed to set aside time to figure out the Protocols of Planet Blog. I will no doubt violate many of them here. Forgive me; I am of a slinky and not terribly computer-talented species. Opposable thumbs seem like a waste of perfectly good claws.

Let me introduce myself here. As a member of this Dark Cabal, which is supposed to rabble-rouse and castigate and pan and let chips fall where they may, I am a complete poseur, because I like most everything I read. I like the work of Rob Sawyer. I actually love Stephen King. I understand to be sophisticated you aren't supposed to like either of those writers. I enjoy most of the stuff I read in Analog and all the digests although sometimes I want to pick up a red pen and help out. I like almost everything I read in small press; I suspect if an editor liked it, I will too.

I like Star Wars better than Star Trek. People tell me this is because I have an authoritarian personality, that I don't understand the democratic ideals of Trek. I'm sure they're right. Star Wars is about Rightful Kings and worth determined by ancestry, and Star Trek is about not violating Planetary Protection Protocols (which they call the Prime Directive). I watch Star Trek to be companionable but tend to wander away if not supervised.

However, I am a Democrat. I don't know what that means.

I read romance occasionally and often like it quite a lot. I think it's underrated because male reviewers and college profs dismiss predominantly female issues such as nurturance.

I read chewing gum. I picked up a Modesty Blaise book recently and liked that, too, although not well enough to read another one.

My tastes don't descend to liking everything I read, however. For example, I sometimes teach, and students offer me game scenarios, survivalist wet-dreams, or generic fantasy. I try to be nice, but I hate that stuff. I secretly believe the personalities of some people are either so poisonous or so saccharine that they should do something else, maybe torch abandoned buildings or paint pre-formed Hummel figurines.

I like some of the high cult stuff well enough, although I must say hearing it read by the author makes it more enjoyable. I really found John Updike very ho-hum until I heard him read. It wasn't that he was a congenial person; I and a number of women in the audience expressed a belief that he's quite arrogant and also a misogynist. But when he read his work, it was funny. I got it.

In detective fiction, I like just everything, and I've decided I will not analyze it with conventional critical tools, because really all I want is freshness, surprise, and a lot of corpses. I like really violent mysteries, like Andrew Vachss. I have a horrid suspicion I like this stuff because it appeals to the part of me that says, "Women are in danger all the time. Women are natural victims. Watch out for the serial killer hiding under your car." It's not very feminist. It's because I was a cat in a former life.

So, Dark Cabal: why am I here? Certainly not because I'm planning to slam current fiction, although if I happen across something overrated, that would be fun. It's because I enjoy being part of something dark and sneaky. It's because I was a cat in a former life.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Jones, Camoflage, and Gender Exploration

I'm mulling over the description by Onyx of Gwenyth Jones' book Life as "another gender exploration book."

What's meant, in modern SF, by a "gender exploration" book? Do we still need such things? Does the term mean anything more or different than women complaining about how rotten the world is because it has men in it, and how we all play such stereotyped roles, and how awful it is that gays aren't treated right in our society, and how a fantasy society would be so much better? (Or so much worse?)

Certainly back in the '80s, when gender exploration was a new thing in SF, I found them fascinating-- but perhaps it was just the novelty. Left Hand of Darkness is probably the prime examplar of a gender exploration book, but what is most interesting about it, looking back from a distance, is that how little it really is about gender exploration. In fact, it is remarkable how much LeGuin manages to avoid the main issues.

These days we have the Tiptree award to tell us what's good in the way of gender-exploration SF... but it seem a rather clouded oracle. I liked Joe Haldeman's book Camoflage quite a bit (except that I thought the love story at the end entirely unmotivated)-- but other than the trivial fact that his main character was a shape-changing alien who (over the course of the book) took both female and male forms, in what way did it explore gender?

Do we need gender exploration books any more? Do they have anything left to say to us?

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Random stories from F&SF

The other day a cat was sitting on me, so I grabbed some of the magazines that happened to be in reach, and read some stories. (I never seem to catch up in my reading-- magazines acumulate faster than I can deal with them.) This are some not-particularly insightful thoughts on randomly selected stories-- not chosen to be the best, not the worst, just the stories that happened to be at hand.

The May 2005 F&SF was the first issue that I grabbed, and I found I'd already read about half the stories in that issue. The long story was "The Imago Sequence," by Laird Barron. I liked the set-up: the first-person protagonist becomes fascinated with a weird art photograph, one of the eponymous sequence, and works to track down the others, which-- as he slowly learns-- were all owned by people who mysteriously disappeared. The trail leads him to a mysterious cult... The opening was good, mysterious enough to get keep me reading, but I found that the revelations weren't worth the reading. OK, mysterious cult worships bizarre shit, and, surprise, the photographs are of real things, the bizarre shit really exists, and the protagonist dies, enveloped in some eldrich horror. Sure. The writing and the level of observed detail is '80s vintage, but the plot itself is pure 30s Lovecraft.

For my taste, K. D. Wentworth's "Born Again" was the high point of the issue. Clones of Jesus Christ (cloned from cells recoverd from the Shroud of Turin, of course) would seem to be so high concept that there couldn't be much new to say from the concept, but her take worked for me. Jesus is a sullen teenager, one of thousands of Jesus Christ clones-- any suburban family with the bucks can get one. The Jesus kids, though, are confused teenagers, unsure about their place in life, with no notable powers. The protagonist is the sister, who has to deal with it., and the portrait of the teenagers seems quite real to me.

It seems to have been the "god" theme issue. The other god story in the same issue, Robert Reed's "The New God," is ok but nothing special. The story was told in a deliberately distanced style, with no detailed focus on character: the place and time is the "present," although in a world in which God is real and evident, and the current God is being replaced, to a great amount of rumors and public relation and jockeying of candidates. I liked it, it was amusing (in the right mood, possibly even laugh-out-loud funny), but nothing of lasting value to the field.

Robert Thurston's story "I.D.I.D" was an ineresting story that didn't quite work for me. Our protagonist is a (female) scientist, who is working on a remote island, where there's a government-funded scientific team studying some aliens who have landed there. The story is about her trip back to Washington to deal with the politics of funding-- a realistic enough set up, but the interesting part of the story was left behind on the island, and the story primarily seems to be about her dealing with a cliche male-chauvinist-pig character she meets in a bar. I think it's one of those "gender exploration" stories, which I find boring, or maybe a commentary on the politicization of science, which I find boring, or both.

The other stories in the issue I have little commentary on. "The Golems of Detroit" is apparently a section of Alex Irvine's upcoming novel, and it's probably unfair to review it out of context. Steven Popkes's "The Great Caruso" didn't really work for me, although I liked other works from him,

The next issue on the pile was the July 05 issue, and I read only the first story, "The Tournament at Surreptitia" by John Morrissey. Looks like a lot of good stuff in the issue, and it's a pity I started with probably the least ground-breaking story. When I was a kid, I was blown away by the very early SF novels of Morrissey-- Starbrat, Nail Down the Stars. Morrissey has settled down into writing comfortable, funny fantasy about a wizard named Kedrigan, though, which I find to be minor stuff. Readable enough, of course, if you like mild satire of genre conventions, but satirizing fantasy conventions goes back at least to William Makepeace Thackeray's 1854 "The Rose and the Ring," and probably back a lot further. Nothing particularly memorable.

I’ve been reading Gwenyth Jones Life (Aqueduct Press 2004.) She won the Tiptree for White Queen and Life is another gender exploration book. I really like gender exploration books so that’s all right by me. It’s the story of a woman, Anna, who studies biology. It starts in college with Anna in college and follows her, and many of her college friends, through jobs and Anna’s discovery of a genetic process that gives evidence that could change our understanding of evolution and alter our gender. There is, in many ways, nothing science fictional about it, except that it starts in the present and goes into the future a few years. It’s a book about five minutes from now.

What I like best about the book are its very literary virtues. The prose is really good, the characters are complex and feel real. We get just enough of their backstory to have a sense of them as members of a social class and culture. At the same time, Jones is too much of a pro not to have her science good and her extrapolation knowing. In an early exchange between Anna and a complicated little piece of work, a problem girl-child named Ramone, Anna and Ramone are squaring off in a good natured pissing contest about liberal arts versus science. Ramone makes the observation that Biology is second class, and that guys all go for Physics, which is where the glamor is. Girls gravitate towards Biols.

“Shows how much you know about science,” retorted Anna. “Do you call Biology second class? That’s ridiculous. you’re living in the past. So you really think people are going to be worried, a hundred years from now, about missing Z particles and up and down quarks? It’ll be like phlogistron or something, people will laugh. Just look at the board, look at the evidence. They have big money, but that alphabet soup is dead in more ways than one. The boys go for Physics because they’re conformists. I mean, really, doesn’t it remind you of Alfonso of Castile?”

“Who?”

“You know. King of Castile in the fifteenth century. When they showed him the latest cat’s cradle of celestial spheres that was supposed to reconcile astronmer’s observations with the stationary earth. He said, 'If God had consulted me, I would have suggested something simpler.' Haven’t you read The Sleepwalkers?”

“I couldn’t give a shit about Alfonso of Castile—“

The book is very British, and one of its rare failings is Spence, the American Exchange Student who is described as being very witty and American, but who speaks pretty pure British English. He snogs. He talks about making some easy dosh. Okay, it’s a failing of the book, but grit your teeth and ignore it. The rest of the book is worth it. I suspect it’s the very Birtishness of this book that hurt it when it came time to find a US publisher. White Queen and the two other volumes of that trilogy, North Wind and Phoenix Café (smart books about first encounters and, of course, gender politics) were published by Tor.

It’s not getting a lot of attention. That’s not entirely because it’s British. China Mieville, and Ian McDonald are doing all right in the U.S. People talk about Jones as being difficult, but if I had to describe this novel I’d say it was domestic—as much about life, marriage and childrearing as about huge social changes and biology. It takes a lot of pages, almost half the book, before the implications of Anna’s research become plain to her (and to us.) It could be that it’s pleasures are not entirely the pleasures that people look for when they go to the science fiction section of their Borders.

It is, to me, another case of science fiction that doesn’t meet genre expectations, and I wonder what Jones career would be like if she had started publishing in the last couple of years rather than in the early nineties. White Queen and, as I understand it, the series she is working on now (including Bold As Love) which I haven’t read, are very much the kind of work that demands a lot from a science fiction savvy reader. But Life could very easily sit next to Oryx and Crake, and is a much better book.

Monday, June 20, 2005

I've been reading--no, really!

Belated explanations:

Why I am here: I don't read enough new stuff. I thought this might spur me to action.
Why anonymous: That was the rule of the game. It sounded like fun.

Theory and philosophy discussions hurt my brain, so here are some stories. I read the Winter 2004 issue of Talebones and the December 2004 issue of Weird Tales.

My favorite story in Talebones was "The Dog Prince" by Sarah Prineas. It's very dark fantasy, a Tanith Lee sort of dark, where I'm thinking, "This is too simple, I shouldn't be this horrified." But I am. Yummy stuff.

In Weird Tales, I very much enjoyed "Hearts and Minds" by Barbara Krasnoff. It's short--three pages. But it's exactly the right length, with great atmosphere and details, and just the right twist. I smiled the whole way through, and laughed in what I think were the right places.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Brittney Spears and the DaVinci Code

qwui laments:

It sure does seem to be easy for snobs and wannabees to toss off quips about how bestsellers like _DaVinci Code_-- or Brittany Spears-- are lacking in all originality.

It's certainly a lot easier to denigrate the audience than to ask the questions of exactly how the work achieves its effect.

The prose of _DaVinci Code_ ain't gonna win awards for beauty, or for that matter, for clarity, either. OK, fine, get over it. Quit whining and bitching about how it's junk, you losers. Take it apart. Why does it work?


Here's my best guess:

What makes a story effective isn't the quality of the prose, but the degree to which the reader can participate with the story being told. If the narrative (be it a technical how-to a la Clancy or Melville or a more traditional literary-dream sorta thing) engages the reader, we'll forgive a lot of clunky craftwork.

(This isn't original with me -- I'm taking that more or less whole cloth from Borges.)

So the things that make a story engaging:

1) Accessibility

A story that relies on a great deal of effort on the part of the reader to decode puts off all the readers who don't want to make or aren't capable of the effort. They leave feeling stupid.

Dan Brown wrote clean, workmanlike prose that was easy to follow, his action was clear, and his intellectual puzzle work was explained succinctly and clearly. (Also he complimented the reader by saying how complex fairly simple things were, leaving most folks able to pat themselves on the back for following it.)

2) Familiarity

The DaVinci Code was an action film -- it's a genre that all the readers were familiar with, and the parts that strained credulity got away with it because we could imagine it being filmed. The structure of the story itself wasn't challenging. It made a contract with the reader to be light and action-packed along the lines of Indiana Jones or the X-Files and it kept to that structure. That familiarity is reassuring.

3) Transgression

This is the part that Onyx is talking about when he talks about being near to but not dead in cliché. The DaVinci Code riffs on Christian heresy in a way that can titillate especially the Christian reader. This is actually a pretty intellectual transgression. More often the transgressive element is sexual or violent fantasy that, while common as dirt, still isn't acceptable to act out in the real world.

It's important for me to emphasize here, I'm not talking about *artistic* transgression. A mystery novel that breaks genre conventions isn't transgressive. It's unfamiliar and difficult to follow. The transgression I'm talking against the rules of civilized conduct that define socially acceptable behavior in the culture.

Also the transgression is usually minor.

Brittney Spears is musically simple (accessibility), uninventive (familiarity), and dripping with sexuality (transgression).

Saturday, June 18, 2005

The Box

I’m still thinking about Nick Hornby and Banks, and what that says. I looked back at my original post for which I’ve been chided for being naïve about the sf market. But the post isn’t really about the market. It’s about an aesthetic issue. Relationship of the artist to the audience stuff. Economics does affect that, of course. One of the things that being incomprehensible to all but a fairly small audience does—you know, writing books for 10,000 people to read—is it gives people a lot of freedom to write what they want.

Science fiction is, like all fiction, a fiction of conventions. Conventions like causality, which works a lot more strongly in narrative art than it does in real life. Conventions like the way that showing a character with a lot of books, or reading, or learning something like music or French will signal a sympathetic character. (It’s a modern day white hat.) One of the tricks of art is to work enough within the conventions that a your audience gets what you’re doing. Stephen Spielberg is really good at this. But work that is too conventional is cliché and although there will always be readers who do like cliché (particularly naïve readers) the majority probably won’t. There was an Italian actress in the nineteenth century, Elenora Duce, who was the hot actress of her day. She is considered one of the three great European actresses of the century (along with Sarah Bernhardt, no relation to Sandra, as far as I know.)

The theater repertoire of the day was heavy on melodrama, and in one play, Elenora Duce, as the young mother, stood with her young son in front of her, back against her long skirts, which her husband explained why he was abandoning them. There are lots of famous gestures from the days of melodrama, like the back of the hand against the forehead. Elenora Duce was considered a very naturalistic actress in her day, a kind of Italian Meryl Streep. A conventional melodrama gesture would be to fold her arms across her chest, hands against her shoulders. Instead, La Duce leaned down and folded the boy’s arms across his chest.

Audience members sobbed. Critics wrote about the scene. What she had done was to take the convention and re-interpret it, not so much that the audience didn’t get the information conveyed, but enough that it felt fresh to the audience. That bit of novelty seems to be a conduit for emotion.

So, I go back to Nick Hornsby. Bank’s Excession is incomprehensible to him. It’s not to me. I like Excession quite a bit. Banks is a little like La Duce in that he has taken a really old hoary set of conventions—the galaxy spanning empire, huge starships, spies, gadgets and exotic cultures—and updated the convention. But over the years, we’ve seen a lot of writers take those conventions (Star Trek used them, for God’s sake, and Star Wars, and Asimov) and do stranger and stranger things with them. Dune’s navigators had to have spice and didn’t really seem like the dashing spacemen of old. But other conventions in Dune were rigorously followed, like the hero as special (in this case, the Messiah) and a traditional political system that takes its conventions from feudal history. Dune was weird enough to be interesting, but familiar enough to follow. I mean we all get the noble Duke versus the decadent Duke.

Delany’s Stars In My Pockets Like Grains of Sand gets weirder with them. The language is weird. The sexuality is weird. The audience is smaller.

I’m not crying for Banks. I’m saying this is an issue we can consider as writers. Our own expectations of the rigorously new extrapolation of conventions means that the barriers between us and the reader gets higher and higher. But science fiction doesn’t have to only be about rigorous extrapolation, no matter what John Campbell said. The stuff that is escaping the genre is often far less rigorous. And some of it is downright irritating. In Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood’s unabashedly apocalyptic future novel, the world is populated more and more by genetically engineered animals who have escaped, like genetically engineered corn cross-pollinating into other corn fields. One of the animals she describes as having escaped and adapted to the wild is white rabbits that glow in the dark. I read about Alba, and Alba is pretty neat. But as an ecological niche for an herbivore, glowing in the dark just sucks. Not one of these critters would live to breed. But nobody but me is griping about that. People hated Oryx and Crake for other reasons—it’s anti-technology bias for example (technology and the people who make it are evil).

David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest has a science fictional element in the dead center of the plot. A film maker who has committed suicide before the novel opens has created a film that people can’t stop watching. (Neal Stephenson did a similar thing in Snow Crash.) Does he rigorously extrapolate what a future society might be like where brain control could come over your television set? Advertising? Porn in such a future? No, in one sense it’s like those old stories where there Tom Swift would invent something and off we would go. Because ‘rigorous extrapolation’ is a convention of genre. We admire it. It’s never accurate, science fiction doesn’t predict the future. We just like extrapolation that has multiple ramifications because its an accepted virtue in the genre. It’s like La Duce crossing her arms protectively across her bosom. And it’s a nice place to go, ‘Ah, isn’t that cool.’

Which makes me wonder if science fiction is an interesting place to be anymore? There are other things science fiction does, besides rigorous extrapolation. Near future sf often doesn’t extrapolate at all. Or it extrapolates just enough to comment on society, i.e. in Vonnegut-like fashion it isn’t pretending to show the future so much as blatantly pointing out the present. (All sf is about the present anyway.) Some sf is nostalgic. It consciously echoes the sf of the past. My favorite of these is Karen Fowler’s “What I Didn’t See” which both responds to “The Women Men Don’t See” by James Tiptree, Jr. and the White Men On Expeditions and Great Apes stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs. I like nostalgia quite a bit. But a little goes a long way for me. It can get gimmicky really fast.

SF has built a box. And the question more and more for me is what can I do in that box? Boxes aren’t necessarily bad, a sonnet is a box. And a wonderful little mechanism whose very structure insures that something will happen in the poem. I don’t know if the sf box allows me to do what I want. As an artist. These were some of the ideas that I was starting to grope towards when I posted about Nick Hornsby. And I'm still turning it over. I don't think I'm anywhere done thinking about this.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Genre as non-text?

Folks may have already seen this (I saw it on coalescent's livejournal), but I think it's pretty interesting:

http://tinyurl.com/cz4bn

With Philip Roth writing alternate history and Atwood actually starting to publicly admit she's an SF writer, it's going to get harder to tell which of us is in the ghetto and which on the hill.

So if we're addressing the same subject matter as the mainstream, why aren't we mainstream? If they're writing about aliens abducting hitchhikers to ship off world as a delicacy, why aren't they science ficion writers?

I think the defining issue is turning out to be less what (or how) we write and more what our relationship is to the fannish community.

Now, I'll cop to being pretty new at the game here, but the practice of having conventions where writers and readers spend a lot of time talking together, eating together, breathing each other's air and generally being part of the same community isn't something I've heard of in mainstream literature or the other genres (mystery, say). If the subject matter that made science ficiton and fantasy its own separate genre has penetrated into the culture so deeply that it no longer really defines "us" from "them" maybe the sense of being in community with the folks who read our work is what we have left.

I'm also thinking about Chuck Palahnuik. He's a mainstream writer (as far as content and marketing) who appears from all I've read and heard to have a strong relationship with his fan base. Nothing in the interviews I've read from him shown contempt for his readers -- he seems to really like them. And I think of him (with no basis -- I've never met the man) as "one of us" in a way that I don't think of Philip Roth.

I'm not sure what the implications are of a genre based in an "externality" like the writer's engagement with a community. It's a little unsettling to think of the defining characteristic of a body of work being so removed from the text. I think that's what we're seeing, though.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Half Truths and Speculations

I was talking with another dark cabalist who will, obviously, remain nameless. The cabalist had read this teaser for a column by Nick Hornby. The cabalist had possibly (maybe even probably) actually read The Believer and so read the whole column, but I haven't. We talked about how this cabalist had always thought that while well-written sf could lose readers, that there would always be enough shared understanding of the conventions of writing and reading fiction that non-sf writers would mostly be able to read sf. They might not get some stuff, but there would be enough to pull them through. I, on the other hand, have been wondering if we're not getting to the point where like certain kinds of jazz, certain kinds of sf are pretty much opaque to the majority of readers.

(If you want to tell me that certain kinds of jazz are not opaque, that's fine. You're wrong. Someone said that are posts were well-reasoned but not very energetic and cited Cheap Truth as an example. That's about as Cheap Truth as I get and I can make broad sweeping statements about jazz because I have only the most superficial knowledge of it and no friends in the field of jazz.)

My partner, who has been reading sf for years is now reading, on my recommendation, Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (which has just be re-introduced in a twentieth anniversary edition.) MP doesn't have much of a problem understanding it. But the joys of Delany's work for me, a reader, are watching his deft use of postmodern ideas to shape his universe (I would never have shaped a universe that way) the way his theoretical linguistics and gender politics come together in the construction of his grammar (in Stars In My Pocket all adults are 'women' regardless of gender and all objects of sexual desire are 'men' and pronouns reflect this. The language is heavily influenced by a race whose sexual and social habits most closely reflect spiders.) I want to read Ian Banks and Samuel R. Delany.

Yet I think one of the reasons that sf readership demographics are shifting--that while there is an explosion of interest in sf in movies and games the market for books is not expanding--is because the cool stuff, the zeitgeisty stuff happening in sf is happening in books that its hard for people outside the genre to read. We are rightfully tired of Adam and Eve stories written by people who don't know that a lot of Adam and Eve stories have been written. When my partner heard Michael Cunningham (the guy who wrote The Hours, the book that was made into a movie where Nicole Kidman played Virginia Woolf) interviewed on NPR about his new book, MP was amused. The third section of Specimen Days is science fiction and Cunningham explained with great pride how he had invented a future where technology didn't always work. It was based, he said, on his experience with his clicker for his television and how it didn't always work. My partner's response was, "Did he sleep through cyberpunk?" Evidently he did. And the television show Dark Angel as well. Having people reinvent the wheel is annoying because usually, somewhere, someone has made a really, really good wheel.

I've been writing about how I want fiction to press beyond expected conventions. To have something that makes it unexpected for me. But maybe the barrier between naive and informed reader is getting very high. The things that are going to make sf good are not more sophisticated extrapolations of societies in the style of Charles Stross (although there is still a place for Stross because some people like that stuff, just as some people like that jazz I find opaque.) The answer is not to write Heinlein juveniles. What was accessible fifty years ago is not in a world where one of the bestselling YA novels is Rainbow Party by Paul Ruditis (which starts with girls shopping for lipstick colors to identify partners at a teen sex party called a rainbow party.)

I don't know what to do with this idea. I'm not on the zeitgeist. Part of me really hates the zeitgeist. Flaubert wasn't writing on the zeitgeist. (But Dickens was.) Ian Banks is fucking brilliant, but he's not on the zeitgeist, either. Who are we writing for, a smaller and smaller crowd of people who appreciate our expertise? That's obviously an overstatement, as anybody who has walked into a bookstore and scanned the shelves knows. Robert Jordan and George R.R. Martin are not writing for small groups of people. But none of us are writing that or reading it, or recommending it.

Whither goes the field? And should we just abandon it and head for the slipstream?

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Called Out by Chance

Chance, in response to my last post, said:
-----------------------------------------
I'd be more interested in the discussion you are trying to start if you added some substance of what you liked about The Sparrow and the Ted Chiang story and how they are similar, and for the ones you don't like and what you think the critical differences between the two groups are. "Cool" is a pretty meaningless term without context.
-----------------------------------------

It's a good point. So let me see if I can make my subtext a little more explicit.

The division that I'm looking at is between stories about -- for want of better terms -- special effects and therapy.

By special effects, I mean literary devices that tend to call attention to themselves. That could be the eyeball-kicks I was talking about earlier where something really visually strange or engaging is presented -- Terry Dowling's Flashmen is packed with those. That could also be a showy literary style like David Foster Wallace. Or even a depth of erudition and research that becomes the central attribute of the story. I'm thinking of Stephenson's recent work.

By therapy, I mean touchy-feely emotional stories that keep the literary devices that make them effective as near invisible as possible. My examples are Chiang's The Story of Your Life and Russel's The Sparrow. Both of them certainly have some craft-y aspects. Chiang especially uses grammar to explain and deepen the story he's telling. But those stories (and Maureen McHugh's China Mountain Zhang, and, to go back to my last post, Jim Kelly's The Best Christmas Ever) are ones I remember as stories, with the form that carried the stories less important than the characters and the details of them (the mutiliated hands and fence-perching turtles of The Sparrow, for instance) representative of something internal to the characters.

I think that, especially when an author is fiercely talented, it's easy to get caught up in the explorations of the form that special-effect stories lend themsleves to. But I don't like it any more than I'd like working in a Bauhaus designed factory. Yes, David Foster Wallace can create hypertextual work on a page. Yes, China Meiville can imagine worlds as evocative as Bosch. Yes, Neal Stephenson knows more than I do. A lot more.

The stories that appeal to me as a reader can incorporate any of those elements. All of them. But in the service of a story that touches me emotionally. Given the choice between a story that explicates an aspect of quantum physics in rigorous detail (or is so cram-packed with incredibly beautiful sentences that it's busting at the seams) and one that reminds me what it would feel like to experience a first kiss (or the loss of a child), I have a preference.

This isn't a moral choice on my part. I don't think my preference is the right one for all people for all time. It's an aesthetic preference. And it's going to inform everything I say on this blog.

A short reflection on taste

Jeff Vandermeer brought up something -- I think it was on the Nightshade Books boards -- that got me thinking.

I'm not so much blown away by eyeball kicks. So when I'm talking about stories (and I will get to talking about some more specific stories Real Soon Now, I promise), I may not appreciate the stuff that's cool qua cool. Looking back at the Hugo short story comments, for instance, Jim Kelly's story (still far & away my favorite) was interesting to me more because I thought the human interaction and psychological truth of it was interesting. Nicholas Whyte's Mega-meta-review cites the cute anthropomorphic robots as a reason not to cotton to the story, and that's a perfectly valid point. De gustibus...

The thing is I didn't really get bothered by them one way or another, because I put them in my (previously un-identified) "yes, yes, very sf-nal" box and moved on.

Reading Onyx's post and the responses to it, I'm wondering if we young writers are maybe getting a little too caught up in people -- what's the phrase? Shutting up and doing something cool? I think about the work that I've enjoyed the most in recent years, and most of it's been pretty low eyeball kicky stuff. Mary Doria Russel's The Sparrow. Ted Chiang's The Story of Your Life. Some stuff -- and I'm thinking of the New Weird and Stepehnson's Baroque Cycle -- seems to be built almost entirely out of cool, and yet they don't move me.

I don't really want to degenerate into a "what's wrong with the field"/"what happened to the good old days" conversation. More by way of self-disclosure, it appears I am a skeptic of coolth. And maybe that's part of what I'm looking for in the things I read -- a sense that cool is not enough.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Details...

In the comments I'm rightly taken to task for complaining about being marketed to. What I was trying to point out with my first post was not that I was being marketed to, but one person who was able to send around a lot of books, and between that and the addition of some friends votes, was able to push an item onto the ballot of an award. While I'm all for marketing I'd rather see marketing directed at readers and gaining new readers, those few hundred free copies could have gone to saloons or doctors offices to build that writer new readers. What the author did doesn't strike me as guerilla marketing, giving free copies away at a bar with magnets and a reading would have been guerilla.

It's fairly obvious the award I'm talking about is the Nebula, and I'm fascinated with the process. SFWA is a small group of readers (the organization is somewhere over a thousand members) and here's what has to be read in order to keep up:

According to Locus in 2004 1,417 new genre books were published. That's a lot of books. Rich Horton notes in his 2003 short fiction summary/survey that he read 52 novellas, 281 novelettes, and 1189 short stories. Looking at this link you get a very quick list of what he had to read (magazines, chapbooks, anthologies, online venues) to get them all.

With thousands of titles to choose from it's not surprising we're in a bind, and whoever sends a book around will probably get votes. Who can afford to even buy hundreds of new books every year while subscribing and hunting down every single possible venue that short fiction might exist in?

So here's an idea, why not create an online list for SFWA members who'd like to be marketed to and who want to try to read everything? It would be an area that you could get online in, add your physical address to if you don't mind mailers, and your email address if you don't mind e-copies being sent to you, and the list could be available to any SFWA member who clicked on it and wanted to send things around. Additionally, I wouldn't mind a common 'Nebula upload' area where interested authors could post stuff they thought worthy that one could browse around and download stories for consideration.

It isn't a perfect solution, but it would at least begin to address the problem of the SFWA list being considered a guerilla marketing tool and also allow the harried and unread to be have greater access to work for award consideration.

It's just a thought.

On another conversation starter: here is one example of how the Nebula award has changed with this award slightly in the last few decades. Here is the Nebula Final Ballot for short fiction for 1965:

"Balanced Ecology" by James Schmitz
"Becalmed in Hell" by Larry Niven
"A Better Mousehole" by Edgar Pangborn
"Better Than Ever" by Alex Kris
"Calling Dr. Clockwork" by Ron Goulart
"Come to Venus Melancholy" by Thomas M. Disch
"Computers Don't Argue" by Gordon R. Dickson
"Cyclops" by Fritz Leiber
"Devil Car" by Roger Zelazny
"The Eight Billion" by Richard Wilson
"Eyes Do More Than See" by Isaac Asimov
"A Few Kindred Spirits" by John Christopher
"Founding Father" by Isaac Asimov
"Games" by Donald Barthelme
"The Good New Days" by Fritz Leiber
"The House the Blakeneys Built" by Avram Davidson
"In Our Block" by R. A. Lafferty
"Inside Man" by H. L. Gold
"Keep Them Happy" by Robert Rohrer
"A Leader for Yesterday" by Mack Reynolds
"Lord Moon" by Jand Beauclerk
"The Mischief Maker" by Richard Olin
"Of One Mind" by James Durham
"Over the River and Through the Trees" by Clifford D. Simak
"The Peacock King" by Ted White & L. McCombs
""Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman" by Harlan Ellison
"Slow Tuesday Night" by R. A. Lafferty
"Souvenir" by J. G. Ballard
"Though a Sparrow Fall" by Scott Nichols
"Uncollected Works" by Lin Carter
"Wrong-Way Street" by Larry Niven


And here's the Final Nebula Ballot for 2004:

"Coming to Terms" by Eileen Gunn (Stable Strategies and Others Sep 2004)
"The Strange Redemption of Sister Mary Anne" by Mike Moscoe (Analog Nov 2004)
"Travels With my Cats" by Mike Resnick (Asimov's Feb 2004)
"Embracing-The-New" by Benjamin Rosenbaum (Asimov's Jan 2004)
"In the Late December" by Greg van Eekhout (Strange Horizons Dec. 22, 2003)
"Aloha" by Ken Wharton (AnalogJun 2003)


Spot the difference?

I'm told it was because it used to be 3 recommendations that got a story to that point, not the 10 that exists now. What effect would having a smaller 'crib reading list' that the final ballot now represents have? If the authors of the first Nebulas were photocopying and sending final ballot stories around wouldn't that have really increased the titles pool and made for some very exciting awards times?

Or am I way off the mark?

By the way, for the record, I'm not nostalgic for 'good old days' nor am I interested in a manifesto, but I'm anonymously here to try and offer up some links to great fiction and to find out about great fiction I may have missed, and to also see if I can toss some interesting ideas out there.

Monday, June 06, 2005

World Fantasy Award

The nominating ballot for the World Fantasy Award is due June 30. Any recommendations? I'm far behind on my short story reading.

I like Patricia McKillip's Alphabet of Thorn on the novel side. Will post more choices when I think of them. (2004 was so long ago...what did I read again?)

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.