The OF Blog

Monday, April 20, 2015

Famous writer talks about being classified as a "science fiction" writer

For many readers and even some writers of science fiction, debates on who is or is not "mainstream" writing in the field may seem to be a relatively new development, or at least one that has developed new branches.  However, fifty years ago there was this author, Kurt Vonnegut, who seemed to be astride all sorts of these literary "fault lines" that are all the rage these days.  In his 1965 essay, "Science Fiction," it is interesting to see how germane his observations are in relation to what various puppies, kittens, roadkill, and other sundry SFnal groups want to argue about in regards to the "soul" of science fiction.  Below are some selections from this 3.5 page essay, reprinted in 2012 by the Library of America for Kurt Vonnegut:  Novels & Stories 1950-1962:

Years ago I was working in Schenectady for General Electric, completely surrounded by machines and ideas for machines, so I wrote a novel about people and machines, and machines frequently got the best of it, as machines will.  (It was called Player Piano, and it was brought out again in both hard cover and in paperback.)  And I learned from the reviewers that I was a science-fiction writer.

I didn't know that.  I supposed that I was writing a novel about life, about things I could not avoid seeing and hearing in Schenectady, a very real town, awkwardly set in the gruesome now.  I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer label "science fiction" ever since, and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal.

The way a person gets into this drawer, apparently, is to notice technology.  The feeling persists that no one can simultaneously be a respectable writer and understand how a refrigerator works, just as no gentleman wears a brown suit in the city.  Colleges may be to blame.  English majors are encouraged, I know, to hate chemistry and physics, and to be proud because they are not dull and creepy and humorless and war-oriented like the engineers across the quad.  And our most impressive critics have commonly been such English majors, and they are squeamish about technology to this very day.  So it is natural for them to despise science fiction. (p. 781)
In light of scores of similar commentaries from other writers and readers over the intervening half-century, Vonnegut's opening statements sound very familiar.  Perhaps there is already this image of an ivory tower doing battle against the unwashed heathens of "popular fiction" floating in some readers' minds now, but the next couple of paragraphs derail this apparent train of thought, as Vonnegut veers into another topic, one that I think can still sting those who become so invested in "their" field of reading/writing:

But there are those who adore being classified as science-fiction writers anyway, who are alarmed by the possibility that they might someday be known simply as ordinary short-story writers and novelists who mention, among other things, the fruits of engineering and research.  They are happy with the status quo because their colleagues love them the way members of old-fashioned big families were supposed to do.  Science-fiction writers meet often, comfort and praise one another, exchange single-spaced letters of twenty pages and more, booze it up affectionately, and one way or another have a million heart-throbs and laughs.

I have run with them some, and they are generous and amusing souls, but I must now make a true statement that will put them through the roof:  They are joiners.  They are a lodge.  If they didn't enjoy having a gang of their own so much, there would be no such category as science fiction.  They love to stay up all night, arguing the question, "What is science fiction?"  One might as usefully inquire, "What are the Elks?  And what is the Order of the Eastern Star?" (pp. 781-782)
Now this, this puts in words my own feelings in recent years when it comes to SF:  why is it so damn important to belong to a created "community" in which there are some seemingly oddball customs and traditions whose purpose seems more to categorize and exclude, all in the name of some nebulous "essence of science fiction," while leaving those who tinker and dabble, mix and match, all on the outside, being a sort of pariah or leper to those who are in the club?  What is the sort of mentality that fuels such desires to belong and to exclude?  Vonnegut continues with a discussion of taste and desire that span several paragraphs.  Below are two segments from paragraphs that cover nearly half of the essay:

[...]The people in the field who can be charged fairly with tastelessness are 75 percent of the writers and 95 percent of the readers – or not so much tastelessness, really, as childishness.  Mature relationships, even with machines, do not titillate the unwashed majority.[...]

I taught for a while in a mildly unusual school for mildly unusual high-school children, and current science fiction was catnip to the boys, any science fiction at all.  They couldn't tell one story from another, thought they were all neat, keen.  What appealed to them so, I think, aside from the novelty of comic books without pictures, was the steady promise of futures which they, just as they were, could handle.  In such futures they would be high-ranking noncoms at the very least, just as they were, pimples, virginity, and everything. (pp. 782-783)

Yet this is not a blistering attack on "immature" readers, but rather an acknowledgement of just who, in the so-called "Golden Age of SF," read those early SF pulps.  There is something of that attitude, that desire to recapture, if not outright replicate, that initial burst of excitement, of being able to place one's self, just as we are, into stories of derring-do and heroism.  This sense I suspect underlies part of the protests of those who claim that SF has moved into realms in which they cannot participate as much.  It is never easy dealing with a sense of exclusion, especially after a period in which those with similar views were doing much of the excluding, implicitly as well as explicitly.

But this sense of inclusion also encompasses particular interests.  Sometimes readers (and occasionally writers, critics, and editors) feel the need to draw in "outside" interests to make everything nice, tidy, and all of one piece.  This can be seen in attempts to include certain literary works as SF (or inversely, to deny that certain other works cannot be viewed through other, non-SFnal perspectives).  Vonnegut addresses this in the following paragraph:

Most of them did graduate from high school, by the way.  And many of them now cheerfully read about futures and presents and even pasts which nobody can handle – 1984, Invisible Man, Madame Bovary.  They are particularly hot for Kafka.  Boomers of science fiction might reply, "Ha!  Orwell and Ellison and Flaubert and Kafka are science-fiction writers, too!"  They often say things like that.  Some are crazy enough to try to capture Tolstoy.  It is as though I were to claim that everybody of note belonged fundamentally to Delta Upsilon, my own lodge, incidentally, whether he knew it or not.  Kafka would have been a desperately unhappy D.U. (p. 783)

Vonnegut wraps up his article with a prediction, one that can be seen today.  Somehow, I suspect that if this essay could be updated with references to recent events that the substance would still stand:

The lodge will dissolve.  All lodges do, sooner or later.  And more and more writers in "the mainstream," as science-fiction people call the world outside the file drawer, will include technology in their tales, will give it at least the respect due in a narrative to a wicked stepmother.  Meanwhile, if you write stories that are weak on dialogue and motivation and characterization and common sense, you could do worse than thrown in a little chemistry or physics, or even witchcraft, and mail them off to the science-fiction magazines. (p. 784)

Something tells me that Vonnegut might take a dim view of self-professed "geek culture" advocates, or at least view them as being merely yet another iteration of a long line of those who conflate material details with subject essences when it comes to discussing the components of a cultural artifact.  But that is more likely my own interjection into some interesting thoughts initially published in 1965.  Hopefully by the time I am truly an old man that even this latest "lodge" will have dissolved and the literary circles of exclusion/inclusion of readers, writers, and ideas will have either been broken or at least transformed into something else.







Wednesday, April 08, 2015

And now, a few thoughts on the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award

... 

Just kidding.  I actually like this shortlist, having read (and reviewed) three of the six shortlisted titles last year. 


The Girl With All The Gifts - M.R. Carey (Orbit)
The Book Of Strange New Things - Michel Faber (Canongate)
Europe In Autumn - Dave Hutchinson (Solaris)
Memory Of Water - Emmi Itäranta (HarperVoyager)
The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August - Claire North (Orbit)
Station Eleven - Emily St John Mandel (Picador)

Saturday, April 04, 2015

February and March 2015 Reads

This list of books read in February and March ought to underscore just how little I've read so far this year compared to the past decade (the last time I read under 100 books in a year was 2005, a year in which I worked full-time and was a full-time non-trad college student).  Interesting to see what was read, however, as there were more 2015 releases than I realized (which I suppose I should write commentaries on at the least in the next month or two), plus two whose titles I won't reveal due to them being part of something I've been privy to.  So with that, here are twelve titles read over two months:

February:

7.  James G. Basker (ed.), American Antislavery Writings:  Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation (non-fiction; Library of America edition; excellent collection of primary source writing)

8.  Stewart O'Nan, West of Sunset (short review forthcoming)

9.  Jonathan Lethem, Lucky Alan and Other Stories (short story collection; short review forthcoming)

10.  Kirstin Valdez Quade, Night at the Fiesta (debut; short story collection; review forthcoming)

11.  Williams Wells Brown, Clotel & Other Writings (fiction and non-fiction; Library of America edition; titular story already reviewed; excellent overall)

12.  William L. Andrews and Henry Louis Gates (eds.), Slave Narratives (non-fiction; Library of America edition; outstanding primary source collection)

13.  Laura Van den Berg, Find Me (debut novel; review forthcoming)

14.  Okey Ndibe, Arrows of Rain (very good)

15.  Alicia Yánez Cossío, El beso y otras fricciones (Spanish; short story collection; very good)


March:

16.  Fatima Bhutto, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon (debut; review forthcoming)

17.  [Redacted]

18.  [Redacted]


Despite not having any set gender/language percentage goals this year, interesting to see that through 19 books (I finished a book this evening), it is 9/19 women writers and 5/19 read in a language other than English.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

After nearly eleven years, it may be time to call it quits

The days and nights are like blurs now.  Strange to realize that I only posted once in March and barely a handful of times in February.  I have read only a handful of books over the past two months and I forgot to log what I had read even then.  I've been so busy doing some practice translations (which may or may not see the light of day; one likely will in a couple of years, if I finish it this year) and re-working my entire nutrition/exercise program that I found it refreshing not thinking about reading for reviews or even about reading at all.  I have only a few moments here and there to glance at social media and for the most part, I don't miss it at all.

There is a liberating sort of feeling about changing core routines so drastically.  Seeing a much flatter stomach and more toned muscles in my arms is rewarding, especially considering that I am now 40.  Developing a nice, healthy tan from walking outside 90-120 minutes/day for 3x/week is a bonus.  Outside of a few minor issues, life is looking up.  The squirrels are frolicking more and more these days and it's hard not to think, despite all the evils in this world, that life and its multitudes of creatures just might be a wonderful thing after all.

But sometimes, things have to give.  Therefore, I'm possibly going to be shuttering this blog in the coming months if my recent job application comes through.  Nearly eleven years and perhaps it's time to admit that reviewing is best left to fans and not those who take a (much) less enthusiastic approach to discussing a work's perceived merits and deficiencies.  There just isn't really much reward in discussing books that others aren't gushing over already, n'est ce pas?  So maybe it's best to retreat into a setting where I can focus on sciuridae and obscure writers like Milan Kundera and Terry Bollea and leave the discussion of books to the experts.


Sunday, March 08, 2015

When "101" just doesn't cut it anymore

Most students who've attended an American university have experience with an "101":  an introductory survey to a discipline that is meant to provide a broad parameter of that discipline's general features.  As a survey course, it focuses much more on a bigger picture than it does on exploring any particular detail in course.  For some, 101 courses are a gateway to more advanced, specialized training, while for others they either provide only what they were seeking in the first place (broad, general knowledge) or they were just requirements that were endured and best forgotten.

The "101" can also be an analogy for certain discussions, particularly those that are meant to be a general challenge to social assumptions.  It's been a couple of weeks since I've had the time to blog about anything, but I've been vaguely aware of the number of debates spawned by an article/challenge by K. Tempest Bradford last month regarding the challenging of her readers to spend a year not reading white, straight, cisgendered male writers.  As such challenges typically go, it provoked more than just a challenge to read differently; it made several react against the very notion that they needed to be challenged at all.

In thinking about the uproar caused by this modest challenge (I say "modest" in that it is not a materially onerous goal), I found myself thinking about certain survey course debates.  One salient example is that of how much coverage should be given to certain civilizations vis à vis others.  It is an enduring, important debate in social studies and there are several valid arguments made by various sides, not all of which are in total opposition to the others.  When it comes to Bradford's challenge, several made various iterations of this particular debate, although often it was used to excuse those people from participating (as though not going whole hog on this were somehow a horrid thing!).

However, there is an inherent weakness to challenges such as Bradford's, namely that they have to be general surveys and not in-depth explorations of certain topics.  By merely saying "read more X writers," which is basically what this challenge boils down to, the reader is challenged to participate foremost in a quantitative process (increasing number of books read in the target group/s) and not so much in a qualitative assessment of why certain works should be read.  After all, it is easy to read a set number.  It is much more difficult to process what was just read and apply that to other literature read over a period of time.

Last month, I began a re-read of the two-volume Library of America collection of nine novels written by writers of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s.  So far, I have only reviewed one book, Jean Toomer's Cane, yet I found myself thinking about certain issues of identity expressed in that marvelous work.  Of particular interest was the author's own self-identity; he did not want to be identified as either black or white.  In knowing this, the language of the poems and vignettes there reflects this particular self-view.  It was also interesting, when doing background research on the book's initial reception, in how divided the reactions were among the black writers of the time, as Toomer's use of the then-revolutionary Modernist approach to narrative threatened, in some of their minds, the fragile equilibrium achieved in balancing white and black audience expectations for then-contemporary black literature.  In reading Cane and then beginning Richard Wright's posthumously published first novel, Lawd Today (then labeled as Cesspool), while sampling other writers of the Harlem Renaissance, there were some interesting fault lines that emerged when it came to social customs, religion, sexuality, and political views.  And through it all, threading a fine needle, was the central question of identity: "Who am I and how do I make it in this world around me?" 

This is what crops up repeatedly in the readings I've done over the years of authors who were of various skin tones, genders, ages, abilities, and faiths.  There are some interesting intersections, such as thematic resonances of the works of William Faulkner and the writers of the Latin American Boom Generation, as well as some expected (and yet sometimes surprising divergences).  This is what a reader can experience if s/he chooses to read widely, not just along the parameters of Bradford's challenge, but also across genres and non-fiction fields (W.E.B. Du Bois's 1896 history, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade, is a captivating read nearly 120 years later).

However, this analysis of writers and how their thoughts reflect or oppose the espirit du temps is not "101" material.  It involves more than just saying, "I've read 30 books by X group of writers" to accomplish anything.  Anyone can read assignments and pass certain tests, but it takes much more self-reflection to integrate what one has read and make it a part of their own self-identity.  Challenges are well and good, yet they often don't go far enough.  Yes, it would be great if more people read works by writers who are not part of the dominant social group/s, but if they aren't talking about or debating these works' merits with others, then is the full benefit of such exercises being reached?

I have my doubts about this.  I do worry at times that such important things can be reduced to a sort of competition or status of belonging.  "Well, you need to read more of this!" can easily be construed as an attack on another's value/priority systems, even if such was never intended.  While I certainly don't think this is ever the intent of such challenges, it certainly can devolve to such in the minds of those who feel there is no real encouragement to discuss the merits of this works, but instead ponder if it may not be worth it.  It is difficult to combat these perceptions, honest as they are (errare humanum est, after all), unless there is a mutual willingness to go beyond "101" and delve into a host of related issues together to find, if not commonality, then at least grounds for further exploration and discussion.  It is only then, I suspect, that the true fruits of diverse reading and writing can ripen and be enjoyed fully.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Jean Toomer, Cane

Men had always wanted her, this Karintha, even as a child, Karintha carrying beauty, perfect as dusk when the sun goes down.  Old men rode her hobby-horse upon their knees.  Young men danced with her at frolics when they should have been dancing with their grown-up girls.  God grant us youth, secretly prayed the old men.  The young fellows counted the time to pass before she would be old enough to mate with them.  This interest of the male, who wishes to ripen a growing thing too soon, could mean no good to her. (p. 5, Library of America edition)

One of the earliest novels of the Harlem Renaissance was a book written by a man of multiethnic descent, Nathan Jean Toomer, who was loathe to identify himself as black or white.  This book, Cane, originally published in 1923, created some controversy and few initial sales as it did not kowtow to either white or black expectations.  Yet for those critics and readers who did read this book, Cane left indelible impressions.  After re-reading it recently, it is one of those fictions that has to be experienced in toto for it to be understood fully; it defies simple, pat descriptions.

Cane is neither beast nor fowl; it moves smoothly and assuredly between poem, short story vignette, and drama.  Toomer himself conceptualized it as being a sort of thematic circle, going from simple to complex, moving from South to North and back South again.  Yet within these intricately woven passages, Toomer narrates the rhythms of black Southern life and the upheavals as some moved north during the Great Migration of the 1910s and 1920s.  Characters, such as Karintha (initial passage quoted above), appear prominently in one vignette, later to disappear and reappear, sometimes in a slight disguise, in another.  And through it all, there are poems narrating life, such as this one, "November Cotton Flower":

Boll-weevil's coming, and the winter's cold,
Made cotton-stalks look rusty, seasons old,
And cotton, scarce as any southern snow,
Was vanishing; the branch, so pinched and slow,
Failed in its function as the autumn rake;
Drouth fighting soil had caused the soil to take

All water from the streams; dead birds were found
In wells a hundred feet below the ground –
Such was the season when the flower bloomed.
Old folks were startled, and it soon assumed
Significance.  Superstition saw
Something it had never seen before:
Brown eyes that loved without a trace of fear,
Beauty so sudden for that time of year. (p. 9)
This poem was of particular interest to me for its combination of traditional couplets (minus two lines, which use alliteration instead to carry the rhythm through to the next couplet) with some daring imagery.  Toomer's writing, whether it be prose or poesy, is often very impressionistic, with descriptors creating vivid, sharp images from text that is often pared down in order to pack more punch per line.  Cane is as much a Modernist novel as anything that Joyce or Woolf produced and this poem of death and beauty and something else, something a bit daring when "brown eyes that loved without a trace of fear" is parsed a certain way, this poem captures several things eloquently in fourteen lines.

Toomer's gift for depicting life extends to his prose passages.  Here is one section taken from "Esther," concerning another major character in his cycle:

Esther begins to dream.  The low evening sun sets the windows of McGregor's notion shop aflame.  Esther makes believe that they really are aflame.  The town fire department rushes madly down the road.  It ruthlessly shoves back and white idlers to one side.  It whoops.  It clangs.  It rescues from the second-story window a dimpled infant which she claims for her own.  How had she come by it?  She thinks of it immaculately.  It is a sin to think of it immaculately.  She must dream no more.  She must repent her sin.  Another dream comes.  There is no fire department.  There are no heroic men.  The fire starts.  The loafers on the corner form a circle, chew their tobacco faster, and squirt juice just as fast as they can chew.  Gallons on top of gallons they squirt upon the flames.  The air reeks with the stench of scorched tobacco juice.  Women, fat chunky Negro women, lean scrawny white women, pull their skirts up above their heads and display the most ludicrous underclothes.  The women scoot in all directions from the danger zone.  She alone is left to take the baby in her arms.  But what a baby!  Black, singed, woolly, tobacco-juice baby – ugly as sin.  Once held to her breast, miraculous thing:  its breath is sweet and its lips can nibble.  She loves it frantically.  Her joy in it changes the town folks' jeers to harmless jealousy, and she is left alone. (p. 29)
There is a lot to unpack here.  The dream imagery is remarkable for how deftly Toomer utilizes repetition of phrases to cast and recast descriptions of people and a fire.  There is a rebellion present, yet the reader has to integrate this with other passages to see it clearly.  This dream sequence certainly has a surreal quality to it, with the juxtapositions of the mundane and the "ludicrous."  But even more so, there is a racial element to it, one that speaks on the divide between white and black perceptions of beauty.  The baby rejected as "ugly as sin," is transformed through the woman's love, changing the others' "jeers to harmless jealousy."

As the narrative of lives unfolds and revelations made beforehand become more prominent, Cain still sticks to its circle of life motif, exploring, through uneven yet frequently brilliant passages and poems, just what is driving folks to move from South to North, from rural to urban regions.  Toomer does an excellent job in capturing these changes, with very few passages that fail to capture at least a fleeting impression of these peripatetic lives.  Excellent as many individual passages and poems are, it is when this work is considered as a whole that Toomer's design can be seen in all its glory.  Cane is not just one of the earliest and best works of the Harlem Renaissance, it is also one of the best 20th century Modernist works ever written.  Even 92 years later, it possesses a power to move readers.  It simply is a remarkable masterpiece.


 
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