Monday, February 28, 2011

Bringing storytelling into the digital age

So this is cool. Broadcastr.com is "a social media platform for audio and storytelling, shared on an interactive map." You can listen to stories from around the world and upload your own.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Intellectuals in American fiction: a plea

It's very rare that a single book review convinces me to buy a book immediately. A favorable review usually gets tossed in the "I'll have to read that someday" bin in the back of my brain, and repeated reminders are necessary for the thought to ever be retrieved and acted on.

Not so with Teju Cole's debut novel, Open City. James Wood's review in The New Yorker has convinced me that it is necessary for me to read this book as soon as possible. Some of the credit for this has to go to Wood, who is one of the most thoughtful and original reviewers out there. He does not use the book as a launching pad for rants on his own pet artistic concerns; nor does he dutifully plod through the upsides and downsides of plot, theme, character development, etc. Instead, he seeks to fully engage the work on its own terms, and he draws out the book's unique perceptions and contributions--without reducing the book to its own uniqueness. If that makes any sense.

Anyway, the reason I must read this book is its portrayal of the lives of young intellectuals in America. Describing a monologue by one of the characters, a student of literary and cultural theory, Wood says, "This is one of the very few scenes I have encountered in contemporary fiction in which critical and literary theory is not satirized, or flourished to exhibit the author’s credentials, but is simply and naturally part of the whole context of a person." This statement brought me up short, as I have certainly been guilty, in my own fiction, of satirizing. (Maybe of flourishing too, though, God, I hope not.)

Overtly intellectual characters tend to get short shrift in contemporary American fiction. Why? There's a logistical problem, first of all, of thoroughly explaining what their theories actually are--as well as the intellectual bases for the theories--without turning the novel into a theoretical treatise in itself. More important, though, is good ol' American anti-intellectualism, both real and assumed. Nobody wants to read about thinkers, right? Thinkers are not doers; they do not take action, which is both a moral failing and a liability for plot purposes. It's bad enough to be sitting and reading oneself, but to read about readers? What's the outcome of all this thinking going to be, anyway--someone finishes their dissertation?

Well, if your character is Raskolnikov, Ivan Karamazov, or any number of Dostoevsky characters, he or she will try to live out his ideas (sometimes with disastrous consequences). In Dostoevsky, ideas are made flesh. They are not games; they are characters in themselves, in a sense--they are as real and as important to human life as food, the landscape, and one's family and friends. As Wood says, they are part of a person's "whole context."

This is true of Cole's character, Farouq, who's viewed sympathetically but ambivalently by the narrator. As Cole (and Wood and Dostoevsky) remind us, characters can legitimately care as much about ideas as they do about their children and lovers, about understanding their own pasts, or conquering mighty Everest. Intellectuals in fiction need not be *merely* bloodless, hypocritical, or ineffectual--though they can still be funny, strange, immoral, and/or difficult. In other words, ideas are the legitimate stuff of passion in literature; not distractions to be overcome or set aside in the pursuit of "true" experience. The key is to show why the characters care about their ideas so much, so that the reader will care about them too. Don't allow readers to feel simple contempt for the characters, and thus dismiss the ideas.

In fact, those of us who care about intellectual life in this country could do a lot worse than support--and write--good fiction about people who think.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A big hooray for small presses

You like indie films, right? Sure, they're not as glamorous, or brightly colored, or loud as major studio pictures. But they're often more compelling, more human, funnier, and take more artistic chances. They're made by people who like movies at least a little better than money, and they--usually--don't make you feel all icky after watching them.* Why, here's one I stumbled across on Netflix just the other day, and can honestly say I adored.

My point is that those of us who support indie films should offer up some of our hipster love for small/independent presses. If the big publishers are becoming more skittish and dependent upon formulaic blockbusters, plenty of small presses still really want to publish good--and original--writing. Their marketing budgets may be tiny, but they spend the money wisely. Just look at what Starcherone Books did for Zachary Mason.

Here, then, are a few starting points to help you find some great new books to read--and maybe a publisher for your cutting-edge book.
I need to do some research on university presses that publish fiction--many do. What else have I left out?

*For an important discussion of ickiness in mainstream movies, see this review of Just Go With It.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

People-shopping on Facebook

Like most people, my relationship with Facebook is love/hate (or maybe love-hate or love: hate). I love to hate it, and I hate to love it. It's a waste of time and somehow absolutely necessary. It's the American Dream made high-tech, where you can reinvent yourself in real time and get instant feedback on the changes you've made. It's you, crowd-sourced, continuously improving.

Every day, several times a day, I visit my page with a mixture of anticipation and self-reproach that I believe is unique in all of my personal experiences. By nature I am a furtive soul, who both resents and welcomes the challenge of pretending to think of myself as a celebrity. Aren't we all stars, anyway? Or just stardust? I wish I could just decide how I feel about this damn tool once and for all, but I suspect the ambivalence is actually part of its appeal. If I simply loved it, I could probably leave it alone.

Lately one aspect of Facebook has proven especially irresistible, and that is scrolling through the seemingly endless page of "people I may know." In about 90% of the cases I don't know them, which is where the fun begins. There's a whole life behind that little square, revealing maybe half a smiling face, a cat, a sunset, a book cover, a drawing, or (in more than one instance) a gun. I like the partial human faces the best; it seems like the most honest depiction of what you're really getting--a sliver, a crafted distortion. The names are slivers, too, in verbal form.

I will never know the first thing about these other person's lives, and yet they're being offered to me as an array of possibilities to choose from, like cereal boxes or paperweights on a store shelf. I can pick one up, turn it over, check the price and say "My God, they want that much?" All of which seems very crass, until I remember that I have given my permission for countless others to do the same to me.

Except it's not me. Is it? Can I, the author of my profile, send it out into the world and let it fend for itself, as writers are supposed to do with their books? Or must I constantly protect and shape and update and explain it? And what does it mean if doing that work becomes a significant portion of my daily life? Is constantly making an artificial version of my real life still a real life? Are we always doing that in some other form anyway?

But back to "people you may know." Perhaps a more positive way to view this is that it's nothing more than people-watching, minus the park bench and the embarrassment of being caught staring. It feels harmless enough, maybe too harmless. It does suck up vast amounts of time, watching the faces appear on my screen and then vanish as the scroll rolls upward. Elsewhere (a fair exchange?) my own profile is doing likewise, evanescent as a bubble.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Should we try to write like Henry James?

For the last year or so, I've been doing a series on my blog called "Borrowed Fire,"* in which I read works of classic literature and try to draw out lessons for contemporary fiction writers. All the books are available on Project Gutenberg. For the past few months I've been working my way through Henry James's The Turn of the Screw.

Now seems as good a time as any to talk about James's language, and whether writers today can learn from a style that seems particularly outdated.

I probably first read Turn in high school. I have a vague memory of my English teacher, who was blessed with an ominous, quavering voice, intoning about the sexual nature of the threat. I have a stronger memory of being bored and frustrated by the story, because it was supposed to be so incredibly scary--but I could not get through the prose. If the story was supposed to keep me on the edge of my seat, why did it take the narrator *forever* to get the simplest point across? If she was terrified by her experience, how did she have the mental capacity to even construct such long, involved sentences? Yes, the story is told in retrospect, but wouldn't it have been better to make it more immediate, so that the narrator's reactions could be more visceral and (therefore) believable? The whole thing seemed pointless. You know, maybe back then people managed to get scared while wading through giant blocks of baroque language, but James just puts us to sleep.

I'm going to go ahead and assume that lots of readers have a similar response to Turn, at least the first time through. The whole literary endeavor seems to run counter to horror, at least to what we now think of as horror. Thanks especially to movies, horror is a sensory experience, not a verbal one. Lots of screaming, lots of gruesome visuals and crunching, but light on talking and reflecting. If you are writing for an audience seeking this type of experience, you'll get nowhere borrowing from James. Just go with "Oh, God...Oh...God," and lots of one-sentence paragraphs.

But I've come to believe that retrospect is a great place to tell a scary story from. For one thing, there's the problem posed by memory itself. What do I really remember? What have I forgotten due to the trauma of the experience? Maybe I've gone crazy, and none of this really happened. Or maybe it's going to happen again, even though I've been free of those awful apparitions--I think--for all these years. A story like Turn, you see, is never over. So the process of writing it, instead of being a clumsy device ("The vampire is coming through my door right now, his foul breath is upon me, but I must keep writing...must...aaaggghhh...") becomes a necessary part of the story.

The narrator of Turn is trying to make sense of her memory, to recollect the experience in as much detail as possible, while constantly questioning the accuracy of those details. What if she hasn't got them right? What if she has? Either way, the implications are terrible. Writing itself becomes a type of horror, a compulsion the writer can't resist but also can't bear to face. It's not just the shock of the experience that frightens the writer, but realizing all the aspects of what it's done to her, and what it is still doing to her. She is, to this day, bewildered.

It produced in me, this figure, in the clear twilight, I remember, two distinct gasps of emotion, which were, sharply, the shock of my first and that of my second surprise. My second was a violent perception of the mistake of my first: the man who met my eyes was not the person I had precipitately supposed. There came to me thus a bewilderment of vision of which, after these years, there is no living view that I can hope to give.

James's kind of horror isn't simple. It's a complicated experience, which is confusing even in recollection. But the confusion is rendered with precision--the kind of precision only an acute loss can bestow. The above passage is the moment that "bewilderment of vision" sets in. The narrator has lived at least long enough to write the story--but from this point on, she is lost (in the wilderness), and she knows it. That's the horror--watching herself become lost.

So should we try to write like Henry James? Or to put it another way, could anyone in our time write a story like this, in this manner? I think it would be well worth trying, even using James's style, giving shadings to shadings. Possibly the memoir format could work here, only it's a fictional memoir...and instead of redemption at the end, portray the growing recognition that there is no way out of one's own memory--real or not.

*"Stolen Fire," as in stealing fire from the gods, was--appropriately--taken. Also the idea of writers "borrowing" from others, especially from those to whom we are supposed to feel inferior, appeals to me. It puts us on a more equal footing--Fyodor, can I borrow a cup of sugar / method for creating suspense? Henry, that's a great tone on you--could I try it on sometime, and maybe wear it out to dinner?

Friday, February 18, 2011

Ta-Nehisi Coates does it again...

He takes my breath away with this post on Lara Logan.

"The fact of privilege is not nearly so important as the uses of privilege."

The King of Kong and character

While we are on the subject of people who seem to like games too much but are actually quite sane, I wanted to recommend a movie I saw a few months ago on Netflix: The King of Kong.

This 2007 documentary is part of the indie tradition of visiting a geeky subculture (Renaissance Faire denizens, video gamers, independent horror filmmakers) and revealing their complex social systems (so like our own! and yet so weird!). The tone is usually one of mockery with an unconvincing glaze of bittersweet. (If only we, the knowing, could have such an all-absorbing passion that we didn't care what other people thought of us...) And it does appear, as a few reviewers on Rotten Tomatoes have pointed out, that The King of Kong started out with those intentions. It tells the story of a changing of the guard in the world of classic arcade gaming, namely the nearly-impossible-to-master game of Donkey Kong.*

But then something shifts. Steve Wiebe, whose quest to be acknowledged as the game's new champion provides the movie's narrative, refuses to be put into the geek-viewing tank. The filmmakers try, in the beginning, to make him conform, interviewing his wife about how obsessive he is, and his dashed dreams of playing baseball (the pathology is obvious, yes?). Meanwhile Wiebe calmly goes about his business of teaching science to kids, being a father, chatting amiably with his interviewers, and playing Donkey Kong--which we slowly begin to gather isn't any stranger than, say, playing tennis for several hours a day, or writing at great length about people who exist only in our own minds. The film seems to step back at a certain point and let him be who he is, an act of generosity.

Fiction writers can learn from this, I think. We may often start out wanting, or needing, characters to play a certain role, especially if we have a plot in mind that we want to advance. Steve the Gamer has to be a troubled soul, so we can reveal the whole world of Donkey Kong as a (bittersweet) refuge for life's losers. But Steve, we find, won't go there. Without meaning any harm, he breaks our plot and reveals it as a sham--or a mere starting point that has to be revised in light of new evidence. Let him be who he is, and he will make your story better. And he may teach you something about your own assumptions.

*From brief experience, dredged up from the mists of the early 80s, I can tell you this game is freaking hard. My favorite games from the 80s were Galaxians and its variant, Phoenix. Although now I'm such a softie that I don't think I could stand a game involving shooting birds--even alien birds bent on wiping out the human race...

Thursday, February 17, 2011

But Watson isn't gracious

I have never been a big fan of Jeopardy!, mostly because I feel that memorizing gazillions of facts and spitting them out on cue is not an especially good use of human brain power. (Also I can't do it.)

So I had never heard of Ken Jennings or his amazing 2004 winning streak, up until this whole kerfuffle about Watson. If I had, I would probably have assumed (ungraciously) that he was a sort of stunted character, having funneled all his life force into the dubious goal of being a game-show champion.

But his article on Slate about losing to Watson is a truly lovely piece of writing. In the first place, he gently reminds us that Watson is not the plucky underdog in this story. The real winners last night were IBM shareholders. In other words, Corporate America, in one of its most behemoth-like incarnations. Innovative as Watson is, that vaguely androgynous purr is the voice of global capitalism lulling us into a charmed sleep. (This is me going off here; Jennings doesn't take the point this far.)

Reading Jennings's piece, I realized I had in fact come to think of Watson as the underdog, after watching PBS's "Smartest Machine on Earth" the other night. In fact, Watson's pluckiness really belongs to its engineers, who worked constantly for four years to bring a seemingly impossible dream to reality (a dream set in motion by watching Jennings). That's how the show frames the story, anyway. We even see how hurt one of the engineers is when the practice Jeopardy! host, a comedian hired by IBM, makes fun of Watson. The engineer's kids were hurt by the mockery when they watched the practice rounds; the engineer says, without irony, that "Watson is defenseless." So I found myself rooting for Watson to beat the humans--which is a pretty amazing bit of jiu-jitsu by IBM and NOVA. While I really do admire the engineers' accomplishment, it's important to remember on whose behalf it was accomplished.

Jennings takes his defeat with a nuanced dose of humility and humor. He uses it as an occasion to reflect on his own experience of winning, something Watson, of course, could never do:

Indeed, playing against Watson turned out to be a lot like any other Jeopardy! game, though out of the corner of my eye I could see that the middle player had a plasma screen for a face. Watson has lots in common with a top-ranked human Jeopardy! player: It's very smart, very fast, speaks in an uneven monotone, and has never known the touch of a woman. But unlike us, Watson cannot be intimidated. It never gets cocky or discouraged. It plays its game coldly, implacably, always offering a perfectly timed buzz when it's confident about an answer. [....]

During my 2004 Jeopardy! streak, I was accustomed to mowing down players already demoralized at having to play a long-standing winner like me. But against Watson I felt like the underdog, and as a result I started out too aggressively, blowing high-dollar-value questions on the decade in which the first crossword puzzle appeared (the 1910s) and the handicap of Olympic gymnast George Eyser (he was missing his left leg).

So Watson may make game-show contestants obsolete, as Jennings, not entirely humorously, predicts. But Watson will never win or lose as graciously, and with as much subtle intelligence, as Jennings demonstrates in this essay.

So the humans are still winning, if you ask me.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The New Short Fiction Series, March 13

This spoken-word performance series will be featuring my stories on March 13, 7 p.m., Barnsdall Art Park, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. Tix $10 in advance, www.newshortfictionseries.com.

Here is the poster:


Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Turn of the Screw: Why you sort of have to be an architect to write fiction

I've said in the past that writing fiction is a great deal like acting. As the author, you have to inhabit your characters, to look out at their world from inside their bodies, much as an actor does. Like it or not, you also are the director, set designer, and lighting designer. Also you have to produce the thing and sit alone in the box office 24/7, but never mind that part.

What I am getting at is the importance of blocking in fiction, which I see I've written about before. By blocking, I mean figuring out exactly where your characters are in space, at all times. A tall order? Yes, especially if you do not have a clear picture of that space in your mind.

Years ago I bought a book called The Writers Journal, which, not unexpectedly, showed actual pages from writers' journals. One of them (I can't remember who) had created elaborate floor plans for the house in which his characters lived. At the time, I thought that was just pure OCD. Some writers might enjoy that sort of thing, but that level of attention to detail wasn't for me. And as a result, I think my characters have done a fair amount of floating.

In The Turn of the Screw, Henry James's characters have no such problem. I've already talked about the architecture in the scene where the first "visitant" appears: the way the apparition places his hand on the crenelations as he moves along the roof specifically situates him in both space and time--which makes him all the more extremely creepy. This week, I'm more convinced than ever that James had a complete sketch somewhere of Bly and its grounds, including plans for all the floors. Whether he did them himself or enlisted a friend who was an architect, I don't know. It's possible he just used a real house with which he was extremely familiar. In any case, his detailed knowledge of the space enables him to create scenes that we, the readers, can feel ourselves inside of. And that is what makes them so scary.

In this scene, the governess observes one of her young charges, Flora, looking out from her bedroom window onto the lawn at night. She's obviously "engaged" with one of the "visitants" (I just love that word) the governess has been seeing inside and outside the house. The governess immediately wonders what's happening with Flora's brother, Miles, who seems to be of particular interest to the apparition of Peter Quint.

While I stood in the passage I had my eyes on her brother's door, which was but ten steps off and which, indescribably, produced in me a renewal of the strange impulse that I lately spoke of as my temptation. What if I should go straight in and march to HIS window?—what if, by risking to his boyish bewilderment a revelation of my motive, I should throw across the rest of the mystery the long halter of my boldness? This thought held me sufficiently to make me cross to his threshold and pause again.

I preternaturally listened; I figured to myself what might portentously be; I wondered if his bed were also empty and he too were secretly at watch. It was a deep, soundless minute, at the end of which my impulse failed. He was quiet; he might be innocent; the risk was hideous; I turned away. There was a figure in the grounds—a figure prowling for a sight, the visitor with whom Flora was engaged; but it was not the visitor most concerned with my boy. I hesitated afresh, but on other grounds and only for a few seconds; then I had made my choice. There were empty rooms at Bly, and it was only a question of choosing the right one. The right one suddenly presented itself to me as the lower one—though high above the gardens—in the solid corner of the house that I have spoken of as the old tower. This was a large, square chamber, arranged with some state as a bedroom, the extravagant size of which made it so inconvenient that it had not for years, though kept by Mrs. Grose in exemplary order, been occupied. I had often admired it and I knew my way about in it; I had only, after just faltering at the first chill gloom of its disuse, to pass across it and unbolt as quietly as I could one of the shutters. Achieving this transit, I uncovered the glass without a sound and, applying my face to the pane, was able, the darkness without being much less than within, to see that I commanded the right direction. Then I saw something more. The moon made the night extraordinarily penetrable and showed me on the lawn a person, diminished by distance, who stood there motionless and as if fascinated, looking up to where I had appeared—looking, that is, not so much straight at me as at something that was apparently above me. There was clearly another person above me—there was a person on the tower; but the presence on the lawn was not in the least what I had conceived and had confidently hurried to meet. The presence on the lawn—I felt sick as I made it out—was poor little Miles himself.

James not only knows the distance (ten paces) between Flora's room and Miles's, he has also located and envisioned this unused room down the hall, from which the governess can get an unimpeded view of who is looking at whom looking at whom.* Thanks to these spatial details, the reader sees what the governess sees, and feels what she feels. I admit, I got a little impatient as she conducted her "transit" (just tell us where Miles is!!). But the architectural passage (pun there) increases the suspense, and more than that, it reinforces all the characters (human and not) as specific physical presences in a specific space.

So I am going to suggest a writing exercise in which you actually sketch out the physical space in which your story or novel is going to unfold. You might not even have a story in mind yet--I think you might actually come up with a story from this exercise. It's OK to look at photos or drawings, but I think you have to make the space your own by redrawing and revising it. It seems like a lot of work up front, but down the road it will make your job easier because you won't have to wonder just where the hell your characters are. You will know. But you have to also remember to tell your reader.

*This kind of 3D visualization is a real weakness of mine; I still have chill-inducing memories of some kind of IQ test I had to take in, like, first grade. It included 2D drawings of 3D objects, and we had to rotate them in our minds, say, 45 degrees clockwise, and then pick the correct 2D representation that rotation would produce. I imagine I cried, and was thereafter discreetly funneled into a profession requiring orientation in two dimensions or fewer.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The all-but-lost art of editing

Via Ruth O., here's a thoughtful piece in The Guardian about the changing role of editors. It's mostly a sad story, but not entirely.

It reminds me of why I love editing other people's work. It's the deep engagement with another person's thoughts, which you also get in reading--except you then usually get to talk to the other person, and together you bring those thoughts out into the open.

Also to be an editor means to believe in the promise--rather than the inevitable failure--of language. One person can't always find the right words, but two (or maybe more) together sometimes can.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Fiction without all the ingredients, or Write like a Roomba

Via Zoe Pollock, I've been meaning to write about Ken Layne's tribute to Mark Bittman's late, great Minimalist column in the NYT. Layne is exactly right:

The best thing about Mark Bittman, to us, is how he validated our particular lifelong half-assed “well that looks pretty good enough” cooking habits. Because we were right, all along! There is no single recipe for anything, and people who obsess over measuring and “having all the ingredients” and everything are, basically, insane people. That is not how you cook to eat, which is the point of cooking: to make a meal you are going to eat, at that point in time.

Until quite recently I was one of those people who would not cook something unless I had all the ingredients. I chalk this up to being, for the most part, an easily thwarted person. I often read interviews with various dreamers-whose-dreams-became-reality, and they usually deliver a line like, "Whenever somebody tells me I can't do something, that makes me all the more determined to do it!" Whereas in the same situation, I would customarily say, "Oh, God, you're right. Thanks for telling me. I will stop immediately."

For example, last night I decided to make the brownies from The Joy of Vegan Baking, only I didn't have applesauce, which the recipe calls for in place of eggs so as to glue those suckers together. My instinct was to give up on the project and return to the sofa, where I would sulkily surf the Internet and long for brownies. But instead I looked in the refrigerator and found...tofu sour cream! (Don't make that face! It's fine! The texture is not like house paint!) I mixed that in, only to discover that I didn't have the requisite 8x8 square pan, so I used a round pan, which meant the brownies had to be cut into irregular shapes...but they taste fabulous, is my point. And I am sure Mark Bittman is in a castle in Spain with Gwyneth Paltrow, applauding.

Cooking and writing are similar enterprises, especially cooking Bittman-style. You gather up what you have around you, and you make the best thing you can at that moment. For the last few days, when I've sat down to write, I've definitely felt I lacked key ingredients (talent, a sufficiently warm cup of coffee, ideas). But then I fire up the inspirational talk I've been giving myself lately, which is, "What the hell else are you going to do with your life, if not this?" And I dive in, reluctantly. Soon enough, something starts to emerge from the back of the refrigerator / my mind, which at first I can't quite see, and then am not quite sure will work, but...is it? It is! The tofu sour cream! And it hasn't gone bad; in fact, in fact, it seems to be working! At least it will hold the thing together till I come back tomorrow and try once again to feed my novel.

Here's another household analogy for both cooking and writing: the Roomba. Those of us with OCD tendencies might be bothered as we watch the Roomba ricochet randomly around the floor, like a very slow molecule of gas. (Go do the corner! Why don't you go do the corner?) But viewed differently, the Roomba's inspiring. See how it bangs its blank little face on a chair leg, and instead of retreating, it comes back, gets the lay of the land, and makes its way around and under. It might not move according to the pattern you have in your mind--but it's getting the job done just fine.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Blood and language in fiction

A little while ago I started dipping into the collection of James Tiptree Jr.'s science-fiction stories, Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. Tiptree was the pen name of a woman named Alice Bradley Sheldon, the subject of an amazing biography by Julie Phillips called James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon. (More about that tragic double life here.)

So, how are the stories? In a word, grim. GRIM. As a feminist in the 60s and 70s, Sheldon was not optimistic about the patriarchy giving way to an egalitarian utopia. In the stories I've read so far, patriarchy is an overwhelming force, existing both outside and inside individual men, whose implacable goal is to wipe women off the face of the earth. For example, from "The Screwfly Solution," there's this scene of a man waking up from a dream about his wife and daughter:

A terrible alarm bell went off in his head. Exploded from his dream, he stared around, then finally down at his hands. What was he doing with his open clasp knife in his fist?

Stunned, he felt for the last shreds of his fantasy, and realized that the tactile images had not been of caresses, but of a frail neck strangling in his fist, the thrust had been the plunge of a blade seeking vitals. In his arms, legs, phantasms of striking and trampling bones cracking. And Amy--

Oh, god. Oh, god--

Not sex, blood lust.

Well, so, that's a bit heavy-handed. That's the definition of heavy handed. For us more literary writers, heavy-handedness is a no-no. It's not tempered, not nuanced. If you want to convey horror, let your readers divine it for themselves; there is no need for such verbal bludgeoning. It indicates a level of authorial rage that goes beyond the boundaries of the story, which makes us wonder, in an unseemly manner, about the author's personal problems.

Or so the conventional writing wisdom goes.

Here's another passage, from "The Last Flight of Dr. Ain," which is a little harder to dismiss from on high:

Under the whine of bulldozers the sea could be heard running its huge paws up and down the keyboard of the land.

OK, workshoppers, have at it. What's wrong with this picture? The sea as a giant beast is all well and fine--but a beast that plays the piano (albeit probably badly)? When we think of paws on a keyboard, we may think of a cat *walking* on a keyboard--not deliberately "running its paws" over it. The image also suggests a side-to-side movement of the paws, whereas the motion of waves hitting the shore is back-and-forth, approaching and receding. In short it's not just a mixed metaphor, but a hash.

And yet it's compelling. The image has stuck with me for weeks. It may make little sense when looked at closely, but it's audacious and vivid. It took guts to create this image. Its sheer power makes my objections look like petty quibbling.

I can't bring myself to fully endorse the "Oh, god, Oh, god" school of writing. But after reading Tiptree, a lot of literary fiction looks, well, bloodless to me. We trade pure energy for decorum and significance, and at times we may give up too much.



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Wednesday, February 09, 2011

About that gender gap...

Interesting piece on Salon today by Laura Miller, reflecting on the Vida survey on women in literary publications. Bottom line: the most respected journals in the country have far fewer female contributors than male, and review far fewer books by women than by men.

This is an old story, as Miller points out. But Ruth Franklin and her colleagues at The New Republic took a closer look at the numbers, and confirmed what many already suspected: the root problem is that fewer books by women are being published, despite the fact that women continue to buy and read far more books than men do.

However, as Miller explains: "If women were only -- or even primarily -- interested in books by women, the logic of the marketplace would dictate that publishers should release more titles by female authors." But it doesn't, because women are willing to read books by men; whereas the reverse...not so much.

That's certainly true in my case. My own Borrowed Fire series provides a most egregious example--which does bug me, but thus far not enough (and this is most telling) to make much of an effort to be more inclusive. These days, apart from BF, I'm reading popular science books rather than fiction, and I am pleased to report that the one I'm currently reading, Einstein's Telescope, is by a woman, Evalyn Gates. But I'm trying to remember a contemporary novel by a woman that I've really enjoyed recently, and keep coming up with Rivka Galchen's Atmospheric Disturbances--which I read two years ago.

Since then I have read at least one other contemporary novel by a woman, a major award winner, which I won't name because, well, I didn't really like it that much. I mean, it was fine. It did what it set out to do, which was explore the complex intergenerational dynamics of a family. The characters and situations felt precise and real, impressively so. But. That subject matter in and of itself just doesn't interest me. I'm sure that's partly because my own life doesn't really mesh with that pattern; at any rate, what's currently called "women's fiction" or "book-club fiction" for the most part doesn't grab me. I want a stranger reading experience--odder structures, more far-out themes. Even *if* a family story remains at the center. (See The Brothers Karamazov.)

I remember reading a review of Atmospheric Disturbances that commented on--or marveled--at the fact that women don't often write novels like this, with unreliable narrators and scientific, even science-fictional premises. Actually, I think the reviewer was making the point that women may very well write books like this, but they don't often get published. Women writers are largely funneled into the category of "women's fiction," i.e. domestic, realistic fiction, whereas I suspect men are not at all constrained in this manner. Which means women who have other tastes will end up reading male authors to satisfy them.

On Vida, Percival Everett points out (as others have before him) that had a woman written Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, it would have been received and packaged very differently. I can definitely picture that. Instead of "the Great American Novel," "a sweeping saga of American life," or whatever, it might have been called "a heartbreaking tale of a mother struggling with her wayward child, unsatisfying marriage, and a brutal secret from her past." And I probably would not have wanted to read it. Mind you, I myself have not yet read Freedom, although I dearly loved The Corrections--I think mainly for its intricacy and its complex voice, though I can't be certain that if it had been packaged as "women's fiction" I wouldn't have liked it less. (I also liked the DeLillo-esque drug that was all things to all people. A little sci-fi touch always helps for me.)

So what can be done? Are female readers (and writers) like me just oddballs, outliers of the literary marketplace? As long as that market keeps generating money for those who already have it, change will be more a matter of principle than of economic pressure.

But I, for one, will make more of an effort to seek out non-"women's fiction" by women.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Monday, February 07, 2011

Is Sphere the worst movie of the last twenty years?

The movie we watched last night, Sphere, was so bad, it got me to thinking: has anyone made a movie about people making a big-budget science-fiction thriller, and discovering about 2/3 of the way through that the movie was an unsalvageable disaster? Because that would be an interesting movie. Sphere was interesting in this way: its ineptness kept rising to new, increasingly innovative levels.

I kept wondering exactly how it went off the rails, and at what point everyone realized it. Or did they realize? As Dustin Hoffman does his impression of Rain Man in the Marianas Trench, is he thinking, "I'm going to kill my agent"? Or: "Perhaps I will put my new Oscar in the solarium"? All these big-name actors signed on, and they had a big-name director, although one not best known for science-fiction thrillers (Barry Levinson, who maybe wanted to make Diner in the Marianas Trench). It's based on a Michael Crichton novel, which should have meant competently delivered, if sexist, thrills. (They at least got the sexist part down, with Sharon Stone as a scientist unable to perform professionally due to obsessive rage at being jilted by Dustin the Psychologist--who tries to explain her problems to her while their underwater "habitat" is exploding.)

So what happened? Was it a series of little cracks getting magnified successively throughout the production? Did somebody really important storm out midway, a la Dracula? Was the original story OK on paper, but actually, surprisingly, unsuited to film?

Coincidentally, io9 posted a piece today called "Ten Black Sci-fi Characters Who Aren't Turned into Cannon Fodder." It does not mention Sphere--but the film makes a significant contribution in this area. Samuel L. Jackson's mathematician lasts all the way to the end, the third wheel for the reconciled Sharon and Dustin. Mind you, as a reviewer on Netflix pointed out, according to the book, his character technically has to be asleep for most of the movie. The filmmakers gave him a trifle more to do, which suggests they realized a perpetually sleeping black character was a problem in itself. Unfortunately, keeping him awake undermines the whole premise of the movie. As for offing a black character in the first act, though, Sphere comes through by having Queen Latifah stung to death by jellyfish. Which come from Dustin Hoffman's mind. I am not kidding.

Friday, February 04, 2011

The Turn of the Screw: How to transform cliches into awesome new images

This week, Henry James teaches us a way to transform a totally hackneyed trope into something new and amazing. Ready? The secret is: be Henry James.

Sorry, that was discouraging. In fact, I think writing can be taught, even to those of us who aren't scions of brilliant, eccentric clans. Which is to say, I think in many cases, teaching means giving permission. Like everybody else, writers get stuck in ruts. Getting out of them is often simply a matter of showing us that something we thought couldn't be done, can be. Wait, it's OK to do that? Who knew?

In The Turn of the Screw, James gives us permission to depict that hoariest of literary tropes, silence, not as an absence, but a presence. Mind you, this could have turned out badly. He might have used a hack phrase like "palpable silence" to attempt to create that sense of presence. But he doesn't. Rather, you can almost imagine that he started with that phrase, and then decided to really examine what that feels like. As a result, when the apparition of Peter Quint manifests itself to the governess for a third time, we get this:

I had plenty of anguish after that extraordinary moment, but I had, thank God, no terror. And he knew I had not—I found myself at the end of an instant magnificently aware of this. I felt, in a fierce rigor of confidence, that if I stood my ground a minute I should cease—for the time, at least—to have him to reckon with; and during the minute, accordingly, the thing was as human and hideous as a real interview: hideous just because it WAS human, as human as to have met alone, in the small hours, in a sleeping house, some enemy, some adventurer, some criminal. It was the dead silence of our long gaze at such close quarters that gave the whole horror, huge as it was, its only note of the unnatural. If I had met a murderer in such a place and at such an hour, we still at least would have spoken. Something would have passed, in life, between us; if nothing had passed, one of us would have moved. The moment was so prolonged that it would have taken but little more to make me doubt if even I were in life. I can't express what followed it save by saying that the silence itself—which was indeed in a manner an attestation of my strength—became the element into which I saw the figure disappear; in which I definitely saw it turn as I might have seen the low wretch to which it had once belonged turn on receipt of an order, and pass, with my eyes on the villainous back that no hunch could have more disfigured, straight down the staircase and into the darkness in which the next bend was lost.

What's striking in the part I've bolded how the narrator herself is struck. She doesn't just say something like "the silence was heavy and thick," and go on to describe the way the figure turned. Instead, she tells us how she watched the silence become an "element" into which it's possible for a figure to disappear. She is still amazed by how she saw the figure turn into the silence. She doesn't--importantly, I think--compare the silence explicitly to something else, such as a fog or a curtain. She describes as best she can the astonishing visibility of the silence, but at the same time she can't be too precise, because this is such a singular experience. This isn't exactly like stepping into a fog: it's a unique sight, because silence is a unique "element"--made visible here for the first time.

So what can fiction writers learn from this? One, when you find yourself about to employ a cliche, ask yourself what about that cliche appeals to you. Rather than simply steering clear of it, you can really inhabit that cliche (palpable silence, burning rage, heavy sorrow, whatever) and imagine how it really feels. Two, and even better, translate it out of its usual sensory medium. Silence is an auditory experience usually, and perhaps tactile as well. James has made it something we can see. So maybe "heavy sorrow" could be something you could hear, or smell, or taste, rather than feel.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Over my head in Cantor dust

This is the sort of thing I've been trying to get my head around for my new novel. Below is information from Wikipedia on the Cantor set, which is also, rather more poetically, called the "Cantor Dust." (It may only be "dust" when it's in 3D.)

The Cantor ternary set is created by repeatedly deleting the open middle thirds of a set of line segments. One starts by deleting the open middle third (13, 23) from the interval [0, 1], leaving two line segments: [0, 13] ∪ [23, 1]. Next, the open middle third of each of these remaining segments is deleted, leaving four line segments: [0, 19] ∪ [29, 13] ∪ [23, 79] ∪ [89, 1]. This process is continued ad infinitum, where the nth set is

 \frac{C_{n-1}}{3} \cup \left(\frac{2}{3}+\frac{C_{n-1}}{3}\right).

The Cantor ternary set contains all points in the interval [0, 1] that are not deleted at any step in this infinite process.

The first six steps of this process are illustrated below.

Cantor ternary set, in seven iterations

An explicit formula for the Cantor set is

 C=[0,1] \setminus \bigcup_{m=1}^\infty \bigcup_{k=0}^{3^{m-1}-1} \left(\frac{3k+1}{3^m},\frac{3k+2}{3^m}\right).

The proof of the formula above is done by the idea of self-similarity transformations and can be found in detail.[7][8]

Yeah, no, I can't read these equations at all. But the basic idea is that the set, as James Gleick explains in Chaos, "the points that remain are infinitely many, but their total length is infinitely small." That concept is the basis for fractal geometry; it's the infinitely large AND infinitely small concept that I am really interested in. Just look at the picture! It's amazing! The universe we live in!

But this is all just to say, I am in way over my head here. At some point I am going to need a real mathematician and/or physicist to read this thing. Also I'll need a psychiatrist, although you probably guessed that already. If you know anyone who'd like to help (probably a few months down the road), please email.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Lessons learned, maybe a third of the way through novel number two

So far all I've heard is still proving true: writing your second novel is much easier than the first. And it has everything to do with increased tolerance for uncertainty.

In a lot of ways, this second novel should be harder than the first one. I set out to do Dostoevsky in Cleveland. You know, a family caught up in a murder mystery and yelling at each other and God. But somehow, midway through, I've ended up having to research the Japanese-American internments during WWII, the Manhattan Project, and mid-century treatments for schizophrenia. Which means, of late, my goal of writing 1,000 words a day is right out the window. I've been stuck at around 45,000 words for at least the past month, though I can say I've been working pretty steadily.

In the past, this stark realization of my own ignorance, combined with the labor involved in correcting it, would have meant seriously questioning the whole enterprise, and at least one start-over from the beginning (in an attempt to steer the vessel *around* rather than *through* the Slough of Ignorance). This time I'm a lot more patient and less afraid--because I've learned these problems can be overcome. They are all part of the process. I'm OK with (well, not completely OK with, but tolerant of) writing a thousand words one day and deleting all of them the next, as further research proves them wrong, wrong, wrong.

This is not to say I'm writing a historical novel, or that I intend the novel to be fully historically accurate. The facts are still going to be distorted; I see no way around that. But the historical backdrop has to be plausible. It has to be acceptable, even as its true purpose is to serve the fictional story.

Also: I've learned you do not have to make up characters out of whole cloth. You can seriously base them on real people, either historical figures, or people you know. That takes a lot of the work out of the whole thing. So, watch out, historical figures and people I know! Although actually, as with history, these people will end up distorted. Hopefully beyond recognition.

Anyway, this post is supposed to give all beginning novelists hope. As those who've gone before have said, write the first one. And then write the next one. You'll see.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Posted without comment

An interview with David Kato, the Ugandan gay-rights activist, who was recently beaten to death with a hammer.