Quote #20

jacobs-room“Old Professor Huxtable, performing with the method of a clock his change of dress, let himself down into his chair; filled his pipe; chose his paper; crossed his feet; and extracted his glasses. The whole flesh of his face then fell into folds as if props were removed. Yet strip a whole seat of an underground railway carriage of its heads and old Huxtable’s head will hold them all. Now, as his eye goes down the print, what a procession tramps through the corridors of his brain, orderly, quick-stepping, and reinforced, as the march goes on, by fresh runnels, till the whole hall, dome, whatever one calls it, is populous with ideas. Such a muster takes place in no other brain.”

- Virginia Woolf, having a bit of a “Dickens moment” in the otherwise quite unDickensian Jacob’s Room

Virginia Woolf and the Undescribed Internal World

Rereading Joshua Rothman’s marvelous New Yorker article about Virginia Woolf, I’m drawn to this paragraph again and again:

Woolf often conceives of life this way: as a gift that you’ve been given, which you must hold onto and treasure but never open. Opening it would dispel the atmosphere, ruin the radiance—and the radiance of life is what makes it worth living. It’s hard to say just what holding onto life without looking at it might mean; that’s one of the puzzles of her books. But it has something to do with preserving life’s mystery; with leaving certain things undescribed, unspecified, and unknown; with savoring certain emotions, such as curiosity, surprise, desire, and anticipation. It depends on an intensified sense of life’s preciousness and fragility, and on a Heisenberg-like notion that, when it comes to our most abstract and spiritual intuitions, looking too closely changes what we feel. It has to do, in other words, with a kind of inner privacy, by means of which you shield yourself not just from others’ prying eyes, but from your own. Call it an artist’s sense of privacy.

The whole thing is worth a read but I don’t have much to share about it because I’m keeping that private…

Clarion West 2014 – Holy hell in a fucking flower market

Now that Clarion West is over I’m having trouble knowing what to make of it. I’m still processing it. Certainly it was a huge boost for my writing — I learned tons, and personally felt like the stories I produced the last three weeks were miles better than what I wrote the first two. (Week 3’s story felt weirdly transitional — it’s probably salvageable but it has deep flaws I need to work on in revision.)

Really the whole experience was a hell of a lot more intense, exhausting, and exhilarating than I expected. There were plenty of days when I felt like I was just in a constant explore-my-own-shortcomings loop, often in my writing but even more so just personally — in my character and temperament and disposition, in how I relate to people and how I apprehend them. There were some nights I just felt defeated by myself, by the messes in my head. It’s weirdly unsettling being around people you really admire.

On the other hand I feel like most of the time I provided, at least externally, a stable presence for some other folks who were going through the same peaks and troughs I was. I even sort of adopted a tattoo’d, bepierced Australian daughter, Marlee, who’s a wonderful person, a trusted friend, and a fantastic, inspired writer.

There were in fact a lot of really, really good writers there. I think if I were younger I might have found the skill level of some of them a bit disturbing, but as it was I could admire it without any sort of ill will or jealousy, and just enjoy their work as a reader.

The stories I wrote while I was there were:

  • Week 1 – Periphilia (1300 words)
  • Week 2 – The Iterations (4100 words)
  • Week 3 – Round About the Keel With Faces Pale (4500 words)
  • Week 4 – Worspect Hobbing (2100 words)
  • Week 5 – Harrower (1000 words)
  • Week 6 – What Would Blackshaw Do? (1200 words)

There’s a definite inverted-V shape in the wordcounts there. My week 4 story was a breeze to write, but after that I found that I just couldn’t get myself to do the work of constructing characters for a 4k-5k length piece. As I was writing a conventionally structured Week 5 story, I realized at 10pm of the night before it was due that I just couldn’t do it. I had too much head-weather aside from the effort of writing careful characterizations, evocatively described settings, etc. So I scrapped it and wrote it in the style of Beowulf over the course of three or four hours, and I was pretty happy with the results. (The title of this post is a quote from it — gotta get that alliteration into your Anglo-Saxon epic any way you can…) My fellow student Shannon (super-talented) said “When you don’t give a fuck you produce stuff like this,” which is pretty apt. I think she meant it in a positive way…

I came out of the whole experience reinvested in writing — not just in novels, which is what I’ve always been working on, but in short stories as well.

Some other stuff:

  • I quit coffee while I was there. It was combining with the rich food (we had a chef making lunch and dinner for us Monday through Thursday so, uh, poor us) to murder my stomach, and not slowly either. So I whittled my intake down day by day until I eventually gave it up altogether. I feel really good now and have no plans to go back to it. I did take up rum-and-cokes while I was there, but I’m now giving those a wide berth as well.
  • It was the first month I didn’t read a book cover-to-cover since at least 1987. In other words, I’ve read at least one book a month since at least seven of my classmates were born. Yikes, man.
  • The instructors were uniformly great. Paul Park got replaced at the last minute by James Patrick Kelly because Paul’s eye was going to explode, and Jim did a great job jumping in and helping us through the inevitably weird first week. Kij Johnson is crazy awesome in pretty much every way, Ian MacDonald is an avuncular shaman, Hiromi Goto is a sure-eyed diagnostician and a joy to be around, Charlie Jane Anders is full of good ideas, and John Crowley is a great guy to talk books with as well as being a master teacher.
  • My classmate Curtis signed with a literary agent while he was there. Congrats, Curtis!
  • We played some fun games I’d never played before: Cards Against Humanity, Fiasco, Dixit, the Things, telephone pictionary. If you get a chance to play The Things with Jim Kelly, by all means do so. But don’t play with Alison — she has a lot of great qualities, including being a super-talented writer and artist, but screaming when she’s tapped to become a Thing is not one of them.
  • I was luckier than a lot of folks in that I could see my family pretty regularly, since I live here in Seattle. My wife came to most of the parties, and my son even came to a few. I also spent a few nights out of the Clarion West house with them, which helped me to keep a steady heart when I really needed it. In the words of Bruce Wayne:

luckyoldman

Clarion West on Dagobah

Clarion West starts on Sunday; today I start picking folks up at the airport. Right now I feel pretty relaxed about the whole thing but I suspect that’s like Luke at the start of his Jedi training.

This blog will probably be pretty quiet from now through July. I suspect that, at six weeks, the workshop is longer than Luke’s training period on Dagobah, considering that, while he’s there, Han and Leia just fly around amid the asteroids for a day or two before going to Bespin (though granted without hyperdrive, somehow) and hanging out there long enough to wonder where Threepio got off to. I’m guessing that whole part of The Empire Strikes Back adds up to…a month? Maybe?

“Abruptly it rumbled disapproval throatily.”

I read “Who Goes There?” for the first time this morning, the novella by the infamous John W. Campbell (writing as Don A. Stuart) that served as the basis for The Thing From Another World and The Thing and The Thing and “The Things” but is unrelated to The Thing. It’s a quick and fun read but man, those adverbs:

The huge blow-torch McReady had brought coughed solemnly. Abruptly it rumbled disapproval throatily. Then it laughed gurglingly, and thrust out a blue-white, three-foot tongue. The Thing on the floor shrieked, flailed out blindly with tentacles that writhed and withered in the bubbling wrath of the blow-torch. It crawled and turned on the floor, it shrieked and hobbled madly, but always McReady held the blow-torch on the face, the dead eyes burbling and bubbling uselessly. Frantically the Thing crawled and howled.

I’m just going to repeat those first three sentences because I want you to try and really imagine what the hell’s going on there:

The huge blow-torch McReady had brought coughed solemnly. Abruptly it rumbled disapproval throatily. Then it laughed gurglingly, and thrust out a blue-white, three-foot tongue.

And the writhing and the withering and the wrath! Great stuff.

Spufford’s Elegy for Iain M. Banks

Francis Spufford has a lovely year-later eulogy for Iain Banks in The New Humanist, focusing almost entirely on his SF works. As I mentioned in my last post, I finished Use of Weapons last week, and enjoyed it in spite of the twist ending. There’s nothing particularly new for Culture fans in Spufford’s article but it’s heartening to see a strong case made for the longevity of Banks’s reputation.

Spufford himself is also an interesting, unpredictable writer, incidentally. I read his memoir The Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading a few years back (checking my reading list, I see I read Roald Dahl’s similar-sounding memoir Boy: Tales of Childhood about a week later). It’s a lovely book the contents of which you can probably guess from the title. Somewhat like Geoff Dyer, though less restlessly, Spufford seems to follow his idiosyncratic interests wherever they lead, with titles like I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination (one of a long list of hundreds of books I’ve owned but sold before reading at some point and later bitterly regretted doing so) and Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin to his credit.

Mansfield and the Art of Reviewing

Katherine Mansfield’s perfect diagnosis of forgettable fiction:

Her standards hang on intangible qualities — strangeness, passion, a divergence from the worn path even at the expense of simple enjoyment. “Readable, yes, eminently readable,” she says of F. Brett Young’s The Young Physician –“readable to a fault. If only Mr. Young could forget the impatient public and let himself be carried away into places where he thinks they do not care to follow!” Hugh Walpole’s The Captives is faulted for that finest of distinctions: “we feel that it is determination rather than inspiration, strength of will rather than the artist’s compulsion, which has produced [it].”

Despite the cavalry/Calvary mix-up — one of my chief annoyances in life, really — this look at Mansfield’s book reviews is full of interesting insights, not just about Mansfield (whose Letters and Journals I’ve been dipping into for a few months now) but about book reviewing as well:

It can be a little bit staggering wandering through the book graveyard of this collection, encountering title after title that no living soul has ever heard of, much less read — Stephen McKenna’s Lady Lilith, Horace W. C. Newte’s The Extra Lady, J. C. Snaith’s The Adventurous LadyLady Trent’s Daughter, by Isabel Clarke, and those are just the ladies. Yet there’s a bracing reminder for the critic as well, that reviews are destined to be entombed alongside those books like so much pharaonic paraphernalia unless they save themselves by containing something brilliant or beautiful — unless they can stand alone as works of art.

It’s a worthwhile point (and incidentally Horace W.C. Newte is hands down the best name ever). One of several reasons I’ve been writing fewer reviews on this site is that I see what someone like Abigail Nussbaum or Ethan Robinson can do when writing about a book, and I feel a bit inadequate. Why spend an afternoon crafting a review of Use of Weapons (which I just read, and had complicated but basically positive feelings about — Banks sure had a weakness for the pointless plot twist) when Nussbaum delves so expertly into its virtues and faults?

I think there’s a distinction to be made between criticism on the one hand and reviews on the other. Certainly it’s not an airtight distinction; but generally criticism takes apart a book or film and looks at how it works: how its themes resonate, how effectively the style and content are integrated, problems of execution. Reviews, meanwhile, basically answer the question: “Is this book or film worth the time I would invest in it?” (Obviously, the distinction wouldn’t apply to the visual arts, since you invest no real time at looking at a painting or sculpture — “Don’t even commit five seconds to gazing upon William Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World! It’s schlock!” — though certainly it could apply to an art exhibit, since there’s a time investment there).

I think the work of Nussbaum or Robinson would fall in the criticism column of my little rubric, whereas I’m not sure if I’m writing criticism or reviews. The questions I’m interested in are generally more about the book’s effect on the reader — either intellectual or emotional, though I tend to feel that that’s a false distinction. How does the book’s structure create a narrative resonance for the reader? Does the climax fit in stylistically with the rest of the book and spring naturally from the characters? Is the language fresh and evocative? What are the problems of execution? (Now that I’m writing this, I think both Nussbaum and Robinson, and a dozen others, do this as well. They’re all-rounders, I guess.)

ready-player-oneI recently read Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. I could imagine a critique that looks at the larger questions posed by this book’s existence, questions that weren’t the ones the author is necessarily interested in: questions about cheap nostalgia, fan wankery, the art of catering to the reader’s prejudices. Those are interesting questions and they certainly occurred to me while I was reading it. But what interested me more, what really engaged my critical faculties, was the question of the gormless lack of tension through the latter half of the narrative. Why did Cline whisk away Wade and his friends to the safety and comfort of the videogame magnate’s estate for the book’s climax, rather than ratchet up the tension? Why slacken the urgency? Why, after the wonderful, horrible turn of events that led to the destruction of Wade’s marvelously imagined RV-stack neighborhood, do we spend the rest of the book meandering from one silly plot token to the next?

These are worthwhile questions, but only insofar as they relate to the actual reading experience. Why do we read? Nostalgia is one reason — certainly it must be the reason Ready Player One was so popular, as the narrative itself is utterly artless (in both senses of the word, I suppose). But I read because I’m hoping for a complicated kind of enjoyment — not just nostalgia, or in-jokes, or “characters I like.” I’m not looking for, and am indeed usually uninterested in, a formal challenge à la Robbe-Grillet. What I really value is a sense, as the book goes on, that I’m being surprised, even skillfully and subtly manipulated, by the turn of the plot. I want the sense that my basic yearnings from actual life — that the evil be punished and the good prevail, that people act in sensible and comprehensible ways, that tensions resolve themselves — are being frustrated in some sort of paradoxically satisfying way that feels organically grown, rather than consciously jury-rigged for critical approval.

At this point I’m looking around quizzically wondering “Wait, where did this post start, again?” I realize I’m rambling a bit but I want to touch on one other reason I’m not reviewing much here. It’s related to another point Sacks makes in discussing Mansfield’s review work:

This is the truth so often ignored in the perpetual debate over the ethics of negative reviewing: Book reviews are a genre of literature. Just as you can’t dictate to novelists how likable they should make their characters or how happy their endings ought to be, you can’t insist on lip-service praise without consigning a reviewer to irrelevancy.

This is something I realized quite early on in this blog’s existence. In person, I can be quite scathing about books I think are bad (including one or two I’ve written myself). But I’m very reluctant to be too negative in print. It’s not just about books: I might be the only person on the internet who has never written something nasty to someone in a comments thread, even anonymously. I find it impossible — not because I’m a shining beacon of benevolence, because I’m emphatically not. I just have a hard time committing cruelty to print, possibly because it feels so insidiously effortless when you’re not doing it to someone’s face.

On this blog I’ve written two negative reviews — one on China Miéville’s Kraken, and one that was quicker and more ambivalent on Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief — and I had to grit my teeth to do it. I did it because it feels necessary to point out something that’s not worth someone’s while. I think Kraken is, by any standards, an awful book (Rajaniemi’s book had good qualities and I could certainly see where someone would like it, whereas someone enjoying and admiring Kraken seems frankly incomprehensible to me).

Again: this is bad

Again: this is bad

The thing is, though, me giving a negative review of Miéville is absolutely not going to hurt Miéville at all. Really, he’s going to be just fine. But when I recently read a favorably-reviewed debut SF novel that was epically awful, in a lot of ways that would’ve been interesting to write about, I just couldn’t do it. The author is young, and I would’ve felt shitty about putting such a negative assessment out there for Google to index.

And maybe there’s an element there of wanting to be liked — or, more accurately, not wanting to be disliked. I really admire Adam Roberts; I haven’t yet read any of his fiction, but his criticism is fearless, and the thought of writing the kind of brutal takedown he recently wrote of Ramez Naam’s Nexus, when he could in fact meet Naam at some point, seems crazy to me. That is the sort of socially awkward moment I devote a fair amount of time to avoiding.

So, given that I’m reluctant to write negative reviews, what is the point of writing them at all? There’s certainly value in pointing folks to works that are less well-known, like Maureen F. McHugh’s After the Apocalypse; so for now that’s my focus. Debut authors can’t use my negative reviews, and Iain Banks doesn’t need my on-balance positive review of Use of Weapons (even when he was alive he didn’t need it) but maybe a deserving author like McHugh will benefit from it.

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