Posts Tagged ‘literary theory’
Every year Tin House, a literary journal and independent publishing house, coordinates a Summer Writer’s Workshop, a “weeklong intensive of workshops, seminars, panels, and readings.” Together with today’s most respected American authors of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, Tin House editors teach a small group the ins and outs of writing and publishing.
This year’s instructors include Steve Almond, Karen Russell, Jim Shepard, Dana Spiotta, Jess Walter, Cheryl Strayed and D.A. Powell–a dream lineup if you love independent presses and literary imprints.
The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House is a collection that stems from these yearly meetings; essays on character development, pace, editing, and other elements of storytelling offer those who can’t attend a glimpse inside the classroom walls.
Steve Almond explains good and bad sex writing; Kate Bernheimer discusses the four elements of fairy tales and “the reductive spectrum of mainstream and avant-garde writing;” Dorothy Allison describes “place” as it relates to “All the stuff you’ve got that you don’t see;” and Chris Offutt talks about revising, a skill that “requires a cruel and ruthless objectivity” and, to him, is akin to performing “surgery on yourself without anesthesia.”
Instead of a “how-to” guide, The Writer’s Notebook is as Lee Montgomery, Associate Publisher and Editorial Director of Tin House Books and Executive Editor of the magazine, describes it in her introduction: “like intimate conversations, like a notebook.” She further explains:
I suppose there are those who find prescriptive advice about writing helpful, writers who can look at a project, identify a structure, use an outline, and get to writing One, two, three … poof! But I cannot imagine a world where this is true, a world where one creates great characters in five steps, a world in which one pops books out like laying eggs. In my world, writing is difficult and short cuts are few. The only real way to learn how to do it is to read the work of authors who write well and to, well, write–a lot. Along the way, of course, it is always helpful–and interesting–to talk or listen to writers discuss their process and the work of other writers.
In his essay, “The Telling that Shows,” Peter Rock says:
I very rarely understand talking about writing or writing about writing as discourses that intersect with writing itself. I don’t believe that wisdom can be dispensed to writers in this way. How lovely if it were so, and how boring. Instead, I’m always hoping to provoke, to let writers weigh my assertions or learn from my mistakes.
It’s this philosophy–or honesty–that sets The Writer’s Notebook apart from all others on the writing reference shelf. Here are a few excerpts that resonated with me.
Rick Bass, “When to Keep it Simple”
In “When to Keep it Simple,” Rick Bass explains what to do “when you get too wrapped up in a lofty thought and you can’t quite make the ends of a sentence or paragraph hook back up”.
Try cleaning up the words and diction first … and if that doesn’t work, then begin breaking apart the truths, or purported truths, which are probably shrouded in windiness … Say it straight … as if in conversation … Lay that much-simpler and less-ambitious sentence down like a tiny placeholder.
Susan Bell, “Revisioning the Great Gatsby”
Susan Bell’s essay, “Revisioning the Great Gatsby,” looks at the relationship between author and editor. While writing “The Artful Edit,” Bell read the biography of legendary editor Max Perkins, the man who worked with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Tom Wolfe. She also reread The Great Gatsby, this time as a “tour de force of revision.”
She starts off, “Gatsby is what Michael Ondaatje called ‘that seemingly uncrossable gulf between an early draft of a book … and a finished product’–in other words, editing.”
The writer had gone far enough on his own with Gatsby and was ready for the latest editorial push–one he freely admitted he was incapable of envisioning alone … It helped to have an editor as astute and courtly as Perkins and who knew how to balance general commentary with specific suggestions. …
Many consider editing as either the correction of punctuation (copyediting) or the overhaul of a book such as Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel. The editing of The Great Gatsby sits between these extremes–a testimony to a writer’s discipline to edit himself and his wisdom to let himself be edited by someone worthy: that is how he crossed the gulf.
Generally, we are taught to value content over form, to have something to say and then “find a form for it” as if one part of what we produce is our stuff and the other is a suitcase we bought to put the stuff in. You find the form to “suit” your content, your material. This is not an unhelpful way to think about things, but it is not the only way.
Jim Krusoe, “Le Mot Incorrect”
According to Wikipedia, Gustave Flaubert “believed in, and pursued, the principle of finding ‘le mot juste’ (‘the right word’), which he considered the key [to achieving] quality in literary art.”
While Krusoe “understand[s] the great magnetism of ‘le mot juste,’” he says that there are advantages to using the wrong word:
Wrong words help us stray off the path, not by producing a new path, but by throwing us into the thicket … in writing, correctness not only stops the conversation between the writer and the reader, it also stops it between the writer and her or himself. To have no questions is to cease to explore. A poor piece with all the right words has nowhere to turn. Wrong words, however, put us into a different relationship with our sentences and our work.
Margot Livesey, “Shakespeare for Writers”
A more straightforward lesson to be learned from Shakespeare’s plots is the virtue of having subplots … a successful subplot is one that is interesting and compelling in its own right, resonates with the main plot appropriately, and intersects with it at the perfect moment.
I fear I can no longer avoid the most obvious and the most impossible lesson we can learn from Shakespeare: namely, what can be accomplished by the magnificent, melodious, rigorous, energetic, boisterous, vivid, inventive use of language.
The notion of a painter who isn’t interested in paint is baffling, but many writers (I exclude poets) don’t actually seem that interested in language. They are convinced that the interest of their work lies in characterization, plot, and theme. But the plays I’m discussing have survived, in large measure, due to the language Shakespeare invented and put in the mouths of his characters.
The Writer’s Notebook II is out this month and Tin House will be accepting applications for their 2013 workshop starting January 1st.
Buy The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House
Buy The Writer’s Notebook II: Craft Essays from Tin House
Apply for the 2013 Workshop (applications accepted starting January 1, 2013)
Tin House Podcast: Listen to authors discuss writing
Tin House website
I’ve been reading so many great books lately that after finishing each one I’m tempted to call it The Best Thing Ever. I’ve also seen some incredible movies, gotten hooked on TV shows, and listened to music that I think everyone needs to hear. Not to mention the podcasts … and the essays. Well, you get the idea.
This week, I’ve decided to round up some of The Best Things Ever. Feel free to share yours in the comments.
I just finished the essay collection Karaoke Culture by Dubravka Ugresic. After reading that the book had won an award, and being a fan of Open Letter, I went out and bought it that day. At first I was nervous that a majority of it would be devoted to karaoke–the title esay is about a third of the book–but Ugresic makes it known early on that karaoke is just a metaphor for explaining larger cultural and political events. A longer, more thoughtful review of Karaoke Culture is to come but in the meantime, imagine if Chuck Klosterman wrote a column for The Nation and you’ll have a pretty good idea of Urgresic’s style.
As we’ve all heard by now, some of us ad nauseum, the literary community is concerned, one way or another, with niceness in their book reviews. We’ve heard it, read it, and discussed it all–however, here are two points I’d like to make. First, there were a few great articles that came out of the debate that dove deeper into the role of criticism and the critic. One article that found its way to my printer for a closer read was Daniel Mendelsohn’s essay A Critic’s Manifesto that ran on the New Yorker’s Page-Turner.
In the essay, Mendelsohn begins by telling us that he dreamt not only of becoming a writer but more specifically, a critic. He found criticism “exciting” and thought the critics he’d studied “admirable.” While still a young kid, he went further than reading their work … he studied it.
By dramatizing their own thinking on the page, by revealing the basis of their judgments and letting you glimpse the mechanisms by which they exercised their (individual, personal, quirky) taste, all these critics were, necessarily, implying that you could arrive at your own, quite different judgments—that a given work could operate on your own sensibility in a different way. What I was really learning from those critics each week was how to think. How to think (we use the term so often that we barely realize what we’re saying) critically—which is to say, how to think like a critic, how to judge things for myself. To think is to make judgments based on knowledge: period.
He continues, “For all criticism is based on that equation: KNOWLEDGE + TASTE = MEANINGFUL JUDGMENT. The key word here is meaningful. People who have strong reactions to a work—and most of us do—but don’t possess the wider erudition that can give an opinion heft, are not critics.”
The other point I’d like to make is, as Jacob Silverman, the author of the Slate article which caused this mighty uproar, mentions on the Three Percent Podcast, we have a tendency to move on from these discussions quickly, thinking that we’ve exhausted the conversation, when in reality, discussions like these should be on-going. As someone who can’t read or hear enough about the process of criticism, maybe this is a selfish request.
John Freeman, editor of Granta magazine was on Radio National’s Book Plus program to discuss his essay collection, How to Read a Novelist. In the interview he graciously shared a few personal stories about interviewing authors. For anyone interested in journalism, these few minutes will save you agony later. After an incident with a writer early in his career, a mistake anyone of us could make, John came to this conclusion: “While we have access to writers and their books, and as journalists we have to them in person, there is a limit to it”.
If there’s one word that comes to mind when I think of Teju Cole, it’s “mesmerizing.” His writing envelops you; one second you’re in your kitchen reading, the next you’re walking down a London street. Recently, he told of a dinner he was invited to for the writer V.S. Naipaul, “Natives on the Boat,” for New Yorker‘s Page-Turner. This week he spoke with The Guardian about it. After the quick Q&A he reads the piece in full, which is, as it turns out, also mesmerizing.
For some reason I love listening to trip hop in the fall–maybe it’s the darker nights that put me in a brooding mood. This fall, just like last, I’m again amazed that I can go back to the music I listened to in the late 90s, early 2000s, and not be embarrassed. Three artists that always make an appearance are the Sneaker Pimps, DJ Shadow, and Tricky.
Modeselektor has been in heavy rotation for a few months now and neither of their albums, Monkeytown from 2011, nor the mix they put out on their label in July of this year, Modeselektions Vol. 2, are getting old. A review of the band and their music is to come but what makes Modeselektor difficult to write about succinctly, or even talk about with friends, is that they are hard to define. If you like tweaky electronic music–some electro with your dubstep–these guys are a must. Check out Berlin and Evil Twin and let me know what you think.
FILM and TV
I finally saw the movie Drive, a “neo-noir crime drama,” as Wikipedia categorizes it. The film features Ryan Gosling as a Hollywood stuntman by day and getaway car driver for hire. Key performances also from Bryan Cranston and Albert Brooks. Drive is one of the rare films that begs to be watched over and over. It’s dark, brutal, and beautifully done.
Not yet ready to leave the world of gritty crime dramas, I found the 2007 film Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke. Another brutal movie, this one with a Greek tragedy-like plot. I’ve also started watching Boss, the political drama with Kelsey Grammer where he plays the corrupt mayor of Chicago. Grammer does an incredible job playing pure evil. There’s a Roman opulence to this one.
ADVENTURES IN LITERARY NIGHTLIFE
Last night I kicked off Brooklyn Book Festival Week (my unofficial title) at BookCourt with a panel discussion called “Who Gives a Sh*t about Literary Magazines?” Obviously, I do. It was a conversation between Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review, John Freeman, editor of Granta, and Rob Spillman, editor of Tin House, moderated by Randy Rosenthal, editor of The Coffin Factory. Both The Paris Review and Granta are in the process of launching apps, in part hoping to ease the current challenges of international distribution. All three have, to varying degree, created some sort of free, online content on their websites–all of which uphold the quality of the print magazine. The topic might seem like a well-trod one but the way these four guys are thinking about the technology available to them, the conversation went into new territory.
Last year culture critic and essayist Daniel Mendelsohn, a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker, participated in a talk on practice. As a trained classicist you wouldn’t expect him to critique Mad Men or praise Battlestar Galactica. But he does, and he does so from a wholly unique point of view.
Whether he’s reviewing a Greek play or a popular television show, Mendelsohn says that what makes writing an essay interesting is when he’s conflicted. While some writers keep themselves out of their criticism, Mendelsohn unabashedly injects himself into the response. “It’s not always about the thing, it’s also about you”. The friction that drives him begins with a battle inside his head; mixed feelings prove fruitful.
Most people will agree with Mendelsohn when he says it’s a great time to be a television critic, that “We are currently living in a new golden age of television, a medium that has been liberated by cable broadcasting to explore both fantasy and reality with greater frankness and originality than ever before.”
To him, The Wire, OZ, Six Feet Under, and The Sopranos are evidence. He continues, “as witness shows as different as the now-iconic crime dramas The Sopranos and The Wire, with their darkly glinting, almost Aeschylean moral textures; the philosophically provocative, unexpectedly moving sci-fi hit Battlestar Galactica, a kind of futuristic retelling of the Aeneid; and the perennially underappreciated small-town drama Friday Night Lights, which offers, among other things, the finest representation of middle-class marriage in popular culture of which I’m aware.”
It’s in this realm that Mendelsohn is the thinking pop culture junkie’s dream, applying his classical training to the seemingly brainless media we tune out to at the end of a long day. Reading his criticism reassures us that there’s an education in that hour before bed.
Mendelsohn says his classical training gives him certain tools: “classicists look at everything . . . they connect the dots. . . . After all,” he continues, “Greek tragedy was popular culture in its time.”
In a recent interview with The Browser, Mendelsohn argues that classics are the ultimate source: “Our kinds of plots, concerns, genres – all of them begin with the Greeks and the Romans. So anyone who has an interest in the history of literature in general would do well to study the classics.” I’d add that anyone aspiring to write smart criticism would be wise to study them as well.
Regarding what they hold for us now, Mendelsohn says, “Good literature always illuminates human nature and human action.” Then, echoing his father, he continues, “as long as people are the same, the classics are always relevant.”
There have been a few reissues and adaptations of the classics lately. Mendelsohn offers an insightful and informed take: “the Greeks were already playing with them, and that’s one of the reasons why I’m all for adaptation – it’s part of the classical heritage.”
After you read How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken, Daniel Mendelsohn’s collection of essays on modern novels, film, and what the classics can tell us about war, here are some classics he suggests:
The Iliad by Homer
“As I get older, I increasingly think The Iliad is one of the first works to wrestle with the existential problem: If you’re going to die, what do you want the space between now and when you’re going to die look like? Does it matter? Does anyone care? On what value system do you base your actions? That’s what The Iliad is really about – a guy confronted by the possibility that the entire structure of his values is not being honoured. So why fight? And that is a question about war that never goes away, either as an individual or a nation.” Of Homer he says, “if you look carefully at Homer, everything that happens is also a function of the personality of the characters.”
Ulysses by James Joyce
“Ulysses is the 800 pound gorilla in the room. It’s the one that naturally we all think of, and it’s the ultimate recasting of the classic – in a very self-conscious way.” UPDATE: As Daniel kindly mentions below, his thoughts on James Joyce’s Ulysses is can be read at Slate.
The Infinites by John Banville
“It’s an adaptation of a play called Amphitryon . . . Banville takes the plot of this ancient play – about how Zeus seduces in disguise the wife of Amphitryon, a woman called Alcmene, and begets Heracles from her, his divine child – and updates this to the present. The hero is a famous mathematician called Adam Godley (a significant name, obviously) who has come up with an equation to connect all the parallel worlds that could exist in the Einsteinian universe.”
Three plays by Euripides
“I’m a great advocate for three plays by Euripides that to my mind are never sufficiently adapted. They are what we call Euripides’s romances – the Ion, the Iphigenia in Tauris and the Helen. These plays remind you almost of the Shakespearean romances. People are left on a desert island or a strange shore, their mates are far away trying to find them and are also eventually shipwrecked, there are misrecognitions and mistaken identities, and eventually it all comes together in a happy ending.”
Pre-order Daniel’s forthcoming essay collection, Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays on the Classics and Pop Culture (Aug. 2012)
Daniel Mendelsohn’s archive at The New Yorker
Daniel Mendelsohn on Mad Men at The New York Review of Books
On Stephen Mitchell’s new translation of Homer’s Iliad (New Yorker podcast)
Here are a few things that caught my eyes and ears these past few days.
Rub Out the Words: the Letters of William S Burroughs 1959-1974 ed by Bill Morgan
I’ve always found William Burroughs intriguing — after all, he did kill his common-law wife while playing a game of William Tell, or so the story goes. I read his novel Junky multiple times but could never get into Naked Lunch, the book he is best known for. Now, Ecco has published the second volume of his letters: correspondence that spans the years after the publication of Naked Lunch to the year he left London to return to New York.
Of the collection, The Telegraph writes:
“This second volume of correspondence may not quite dispel this image of Burroughs as American fiction’s resident alien, the lexical bomb-thrower in the body of a government man – but it does offer intriguing glimpses into the personality behind the mask. …
For fans of [his] way-out approach [the cut-up technique], the letters will provide a valuable glimpse into the genesis of his most impenetrable work, the trilogy that comprised The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded and Nova Express. …
One surprising theme in these letters is Burroughs’s cosmic indifference to the swelling counterculture. Our correspondent remains unmoved as the Sixties progress, beatniks become hippies, and even the parties he attends in Hampstead start to be filled with people ‘turning on’.”
What’s the big idea?
Dostoevsky tackled free will, Tolstoy the meaning of life – but is it still possible to write philosophical novels?
by Jennie Erdal
This past weekend’s Financial Times had an incredible essay on philosophy, literature, and the blending of the two into the philosophical novel.
Jennie Erdal, the author of the essay, begins with philosophy and philosophers: “while [they] were good at asking questions and setting out arguments, their engagement with truth was often woefully abstract, and a world away from the stuff of novels”. She continues, “The analytical style [of philosophy] rigidly separated reason from imagination, precision from imprecision.”
Of novels, she writes, “The more I read at university, the more I felt that fiction was where truth was to be discovered” and that some things “can never be adequately expressed in conventional philosophical prose.” Erdal then makes a case for the hybrid form, “moral philosophy needs the novel for the fullest possible expression of its aims . . . Plato was wrong to think that literature had nothing to offer philosophy . . . It is one thing to study John Stuart Mill’s defence of utilitarianism in ethics; quite another to read the passage in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866), where Raskolnikov tests utilitarianism to its limits by taking an axe and cleaving an old lady’s head in two.”
It’s a brilliant read all the way through. For anyone interested in literary theory and the grander workings of fiction, this is not to be missed.
Orbital / Wonky
It can be scary picking up a new album by a band who has been around for 25 years — especially if that band, up until recently, has been on hiatus — but that’s exactly what’s going on with electronic duo Orbital who just released Wonky, their first album since 2004.
About their music, one half of the group, Paul Hartnoll, told Wired magazine, “Ultimately, it has to move us emotionally…. We can get a great big thunderous beat … but melody is the real icing on the cake for me. If I get a really good melody, I get really excited about thinking about what’s going to come. That’s when I burst into tears, thinking, ‘That’s it!’ The hook’s got you, and you know you’re going to finish that piece.”
Explaining why they’re back together and making music, he says “When you’ve got a background and a history, and a rich idea of what you wanted to do, it was a real shame to give up … It was the live aspect that I missed.”
The article features the video for ‘New France’. Here’s the video for ‘Wonky’. Not sure how I feel about the cats.
A Fantastic Fear of Everything
Simon Pegg’s new comedy, A Fantastic Fear of Everything, looks amazing. Unfortunately, at the time of this post, no US release date has been confirmed. Science fiction and fantasy site io9 quotes the synopsis:
“Jack is a children’s author turned crime novelist whose detailed research into the lives of Victorian serial killers has turned him into a paranoid wreck, persecuted by the irrational fear of being murdered. When Jack is thrown a life-line by his long-suffering agent and a mysterious Hollywood executive takes a sudden and inexplicable interest in his script, what should be his big break rapidly turns into his big breakdown, as Jack is forced to confront his worst demons; among them his love life, his laundry and the origin of all fear.”
They also have the trailer.
The first week in April, on the WTF podcast, Marc Maron spoke with musician and comedian Carrie Brownstein. Carrie was in the Olympia, Washington-based indie band Sleater-Kinney and is currently in Wild Flag; however, these days, she’s best known as co-creator of Portlandia, the sketch show on IFC. On the podcast, Marc and Carrie nerd out about music — and other things. One of my favorite WTFs so far.
On the Nerdist, voiceover actors Rob Paulsen and Maurice LaMarche taught me that voiceover actors are awesome. Rob and Maurice, which I only learned from this podcast, are the creators, and voices, of Pinky and the Brain. Their vocal skills do not end there. These two guys had Chris Hardwick awestruck. A must-listen.
What caught your eyes and ears these past few days? Comments are open.
Second Reading: Notable and Neglected Books Revisited by Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Jonathan Yardley is a study in creative literary criticism. The book, a collection of columns that originally ran in the Washington Post between March 2003 and 2010, is a reminder to some and an introduction to many, that book reviewing needn’t read like a fifth grader’s book report or a cold, lifeless analysis; there is a lively space between these wildly divergent approaches.
The idea for the column came to Yardley after a lunch with the Post’s new Style section editor. Jonathan would go back into the books he’d read in the past and explore his thoughts a second time around. Given the nature of the theme, the short essays often include personal history, a reflection on how the work was originally received, and what might have changed over the years.
As an amateur critic, very much still studying and practicing, I have the tendency to leave my feelings out of a review, fearful of injecting any sense of the “I,” lest my thoughts not be taken seriously. As a compulsive reader, Yardley’s columns were utterly enjoyable but more importantly, they were freeing.
In his column revisiting Roald Dahl’s short stories for adults, Someone Like You, he says, “Precisely how I came upon Dahl’s work I do not recall,” something, previously, I never would have thought of admitting to in a review. It never occurred to me that a professional could use that level of personal revelation.
Conversely, in his essay on Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Yardley remembers exactly when he came across the book: “I quite clearly remember when I first read it. In the winter of 1962-63, I was put out of work by the infamous printer’s strike against the New York papers—I was working then at the New York Times—and decided to try to write a magazine article about the increasing militancy of the civil rights movement and its accompanying rhetoric. I read everything I could get my hands on”.
As with his confession to a faulty memory, in the same piece about Richard Wright, Yardley says something many of us can relate to (and often remain silent about out of shame), “The trouble with a reading binge, of course, is that you take in too much. It all becomes a big blur in which individual books tend to get lost.” That murky recollection of past readings is enough reason, if one has the time, to go back to once-loved texts.
With Toni Morrisson’s 1973 novel, Sula, which Yardley was assigned that year by the Post to review, he chose to revisit the story because his memories of it were “admiring and fond but vague”. He wanted to see “how it had held up over more than three decades.”
He’s mostly positive about the books he rereads but for those he’s less than favorable towards, his swipes are amusing, and really not all that controversial. For example he said, “Rereading The Catcher in the Rye after all those years was almost literally a painful experience,” going on to say, “The combination of Salinger’s execrable prose and Caulfield’s jejune narcissism produced effects comparable to mainlining castor oil.”
With Hemingway, not only did his view of the writer’s style change but also of the writer himself: “To say my judgments changed in the ensuing four decades is an understatement. I came to regard Hemingway’s style as more self-conscious and mannered than pure, declarative and spare; I realized that in almost all of his writing, he had little of interest to say; and I came to loathe his worst traits of personality and character—meanness that often turned into cruelty; self-centeredness; bluster and braggadocio; exaggerated, showy machismo.”
Knowing his audience, and, as a self-confessed “Strunkaholic,” Yardley offers a glowing review of Strunk & White’s classic, Elements of Style. He opens with a smile-inducer: “One of the never-ending frustrations of my otherwise enjoyable half-century newspaper career has been what newspapers call ‘style.’ Newspapers have many good qualities but ‘style’ most certainly is not among them.”
Second Reading contains a good mix of books I’ve read, which includes the three listed above; books by authors I’ve been meaning to read, such as Eudora Welty, Nora Ephron, and William Stryon; and books by those new to my ears. Yardley’s engaged examination of the works and authors makes it so you needn’t be familiar with either and after just a few essays, you’ll realize you’re in the presence of a trustworthy source, making Second Reading, if nothing else, an excellent reference book.
For aspiring literary critics, however, Second Reading is something of a self-help book. As I continued to read, I was inspired to try this personal approach in my own writing, convinced I could break away from the bland reporting I’d originally thought necessary. The column, in general, is itself a great lesson, especially those practicing by way of a personal blog and not beholden to an editor: create a theme. When writer’s or reader’s block strikes, much like a writing prompt, having a focus will get you over the hurdle.
Second Reading is motivational reading for all writers. You won’t know what to run for first, your bookshelf or your notebook.
“Literature is a product of its influences. We all riff on something, work against a certain background, mine a vein of thought or style to which somebody else showed us the way.” –K.J. Bishop
“The New Weird. Who does it? What is it? Is it even anything? Is it even new?” These are the questions that began a 13,000 word response from authors, editors, and science fiction aficionados in 2003. The conversation may have started elsewhere but it reached fever pitch after author M. John Harrison brought the conversation to his Third Alternative Message Board. An abridged version appears in The New Weird, part anthology, part exposition, edited by science fiction power-duo Ann and Jeff VanderMeer.
When the publishing house Tachyon approached Ann and Jeff the two were skeptical. Jeff’s writing, which includes the novels City of Saints and Madmen, Finch, and Shriek, has often been labeled “New Weird,” a distinction that has made him uncomfortable. Ann, a publisher and, up until recently, the Hugo Award-winning editor of Weird Tales, dislikes the term out of concern for pigeonholing authors. After some discussion between themselves and with the publisher, Ann and Jeff began the project. Both still have reservations about the supposed category but through their research, conversations, and readings for the book, they’ve decided that there is a “core validity” to New Weird. They see a commercial life beyond the unwitting creators’ original intentions as well as new writers further developing the style.
In his introduction, Jeff marks 2003 as the year “readers and writers had become aware of a change in perception and a change in approach within the genre.” Taking elements from the New Wave of the 1960s, such as mixing genres and injecting a political point of view, and adding the “unsettling grotesquery” of 1980s horror, exemplified by the writings of Clive Barker, New Weird, with its “understanding of and rejection of Old Weird,” became its own unique genre—or did it? Therein lies the question The New Weird sets out to answer. Does the New Weird exist? If so, what is it, why is it here, and who benefits?
The New Weird is carefully structured to present a comprehensive picture. The book begins with the section “Stimuli,” a collection of stories from the New Wave and Horror movements. Those included are M. John Harrison’s “The Luck in the Head,” Clive Barker’s “In the Hills, the Cities,” Michael Moorcock’s “Crossing into Cambodia,” and Simon D. Ings’ “The Braining of Mother Lamprey,” among others.
New Weird, as a subgenre, takes strange fiction into the 21st century. Many of its writers are influenced by current political situations and offer a fresh, thought-provoking look at the issues we face today. It’s as writer and scholar Darja Malcolm-Clarke says in her essay, “One of speculative fiction’s greatest abilities is to defamiliarize our own world so that we can better see it — and the New Weird has a way of forefronting how the social terrain operates and affects everyday people.”
Throughout the book, British writer China Miéville is credited with launching the New Weird into the public’s consciousness. Miéville’s novel Perdidio Street Station, published in 2000, was the first commercially successful book of its kind; before that the subgenre only enjoyed a cult following.
China’s stands out in the crowd because of his academic background and demeanor. Even if you haven’t read his books, his interviews are a profound experience. His dissertation, Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law, written for his International Relations PhD from the London School of Economics was published in the UK under a historical materialism series. It’s no surprise that China’s fiction is submerged in political and social metaphor.
Konrad Walewski, editor, translator, and anthologist, says the New Weird is innovative “at the level of setting and characters,” dominated by “multicultural and multiethnic societies of humans, monsters, and all kinds of hybrid forms”. As for subject-matter, he says the New Weird “rejected many jaded fantasy tropes, including the clash of good and evil, and chose the exploration of such problems as otherness, alienation, and even from both in its physiological and existential dimension.”
In “Evidence,” the chapter of short stories from writers considered New Weird, Miéville’s “Jack” introduces readers to a prominent character type in New Weird writing: the Remade, a lowly class of citizens often comprised of criminal offenders whose bodies have been grotesquely, often painfully, modified, typically as state-sanctioned punishment. With an ending O. Henry would be proud to call his own,“Jack” shows the dubious side of law enforcement—just one imagined outcome of a destroyed society, a familiar setting in the New Weird.
In other examples of what’s possible with an oppressive government, Jay Lake’s “The Lizard of Ooze” imagines eating in public as a capital offense and in Jeffrey Thomas’s “Immolation” there’s a growing tension between “birthers,” a.k.a. humans, and “cultures,” those with a human-like form created specifically for industrial work.
If you’re involved in the publishing industry or if you’re an engaged reader, the most interesting part of The New Weird comes when the fiction ends. The chapter “Symposium” offers a look inside the initial debate, includes fleshed-out essays from science fiction authors, and thoughts from European editors and publishers.
When weird fiction writer Zali Krishna asked if the term “‘Weird’ refers back to Weird Tales – a pre-generic pulp era where SF, fantasy and horror were less well defined,” science fiction veteran, and forum moderator, M. John Harrison responded, “It makes an exact illusion to Weird Tales and especially the fact that, back then, in that marvellous & uncorrupted time of the world everything could still be all mixed up together — horror, sf, fantasy — and no one told you off or said your career was over with their firm if you kept doing that.” This historical remembrance naturally leads to the question: why do we have so many subgenres and do we really need another?
The conversation provoked varied responses, some of them admittedly self-contradictory. Many who are skeptical of genre-splitting feel as science fiction critic and publisher Cheryl Morgan does: “Labels are marketing gimmicks.” Concerned for the author, editor, reviewer, and anthologist Jonathan Strahan feels “any label reduces and limits perception of a work of art, and so is often less than helpful.” But as one of those self-contradicting types he adds, “I also note my own tendency to a) label and b) use labels. It’s something I try to fight.”
Although the VanderMeers didn’t include China’s remarks, the full discussion is archived online. There you can read his response to the “gimmicks” argument: “I’m astonished by the number of claims that this label (or all labels) is no more than ‘a marketing gimmick’. Undoubtedly, if this caught on, marketers would attempt to use it – just as they do, ad nauseam, with ‘surrealist’. However, this doesn’t mean that ‘surrealist’ isn’t a useful term”.
Speaking from the perspective of a reader, Darja Malcolm-Clarke, I believe, taps into the thoughts of many science fiction fans when she says, “on one level, to me personally, it doesn’t matter whether the New Weird is ‘real’ or not — the New Weird as an idea led me to a set of texts I might not have otherwise pursued.”
Although the majority of bookstores break their fiction up into specific sections there are a few who, believing it to be a show of democracy, mix genre fiction in with their general titles. While this noble endeavor may work in smaller independent stores it can be a frustrating experience when implemented on a larger scale, say, in stores such as Barnes & Noble and Powell’s in Portland, Oregon. For those who enjoy spending a good hour in the sci-fi, fantasy section looking for new books, merging all fiction into one section turns the foraging experience, once pleasurable, into a nightmare scenario.
Author K.J. Bishop, in her essay, also makes this point—with a caveat: “There is no doubt some advantage to be had from labelling fiction under rubrics of genre, period, style, and all else that helps a reader find, on the shelves of a bookstore, something to their taste. But there are disadvantages, too, for both reader and writer, the chief of these being, I think, that a label invites a particular reading of the work and discourages other readings.”
A tone set by some of the detractors is that publishers choose labels for sinister gains. Czech editor Martin Sust, when speaking of the New Weird imprint he created, said, “For the first time we can publish very good fiction in one great book line, with the most successful titles helping the others. The result? All of the books in this line have sold well, meaning we can branch out and buy a few experimental titles as well. . . . It has also forced other Czech publishing houses to make room for books by fresh new fantasy writers”. His sentiments are echoed by other publishers who contributed to the book—categories make it easier to sell books and while this means more money for publishers it also means more money, and ultimately more book deals, for writers.
Since the online discussion eight years ago and The New Weird’s publication in 2008, “many of the writers associated with the New Weird and collected in this volume are already transforming into something else entirely,” notes Jeff VanderMeer. But as every diligent fan knows, history is important. The New Weird helps readers appreciate writers like Miéville, discover less-noted ones like Jeffrey Thomas, and calls attention to the legacy of great writers who came before them. The New Weird does not offer definitive answers, which is the point. Literature is complex.
For a genre—in the widest sense of the word—whose focus is analysing the world, it’s amazing there aren’t more critical theory books such as this one. The VanderMeers have expertly compiled a must-have for every serious reader’s bookshelf; but remember, as Jeff concludes in his introduction, “New Weird is dead. Long life the Next Weird.”
The New Weird at Tachyon
Buy The New Weird at IndieBound
Archived discussion on New Weird
The New Weird: Notes and Introduction at Jeff’s site
Michael Cisco’s essay “New Weird: I Think We’re the Scene”
Interview with Ann and Jeff VanderMeer about The New Weird (opens with sound)
Interview with Ann and Jeff at the Functional Nerds
Contributor Jonathan Strahan’s science fiction podcast, “Coode Street”
Weird Tales magazine
Viriconium by M. John Harrison
Punktown by Jeffrey Thomas
The Etched City by K.J. Bishop
Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
*The New Weird features a full list of recommended readings
The independent bookstore McNally Jackson, located in SoHo, New York, features a regular series called “Conversations on Practice” hosted by author and musician Glenn Kurtz. Kurtz, an excellent conversationalist, invites fellow writers to sit down with him to discuss their life and work. These are some of the most engaging nights going on in New York and Brooklyn’s thriving literary scene.
The other month Salon’s book critic Laura Miller was the guest. As a fledgling reviewer and interviewer, listening to an intimate conversation about Laura’s 20 years of experience in the field and her approach to the craft was of personal interest. 45 minutes flew, not seeming nearly long enough, and I was left with more questions than I’d had walking in.
Laura was kind enough to take time out of her busy schedule—she has two deadlines a week—to let me pick her brain. The final version of the interview ran in The Rumpus last week; because of space, here are a few things that didn’t make it in:
In The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia you say, “A critic has to write as well as read, and while writing about a book can reveal things you’d never get from simply reading it, it can also make reading a less immediate and visceral experience.” When reading a book in anticipation of writing a review, what do you look for that you might normally pass over if reading for pleasure?
Key facts, like dates, names, places — Were they college freshmen when they first met, or seniors? At USC or UCLA? — that sort of thing. I had to overcome my tendency to skim over paragraphs with lots of capitalized words. I know I’m going to need certain facts when I sit down to write the piece, even if they aren’t the sort of thing I ordinarily dwell on.
I assume you have a lot of say in the books you choose to review for Salon. How much control do you have? Any considerations you keep in mind when deciding what to review?
Almost total. However, I do need to keep an eye on the readership for the various pieces I write, which is so easy to measure online. That’s one reason why I review more nonfiction than fiction, about three to one. I like the two genres equally, but if you could see a graph comparing the readership of my review column over the course of a month, you’d see a little mountain for most of the nonfiction reviews and barely a bump for the fiction. My employers don’t harangue me to write pieces that generate more traffic, but they don’t hire me to write pieces that only 5000 people are going to read, either.
As a general rule, the average reader of, say, Salon is much more interested in nonfiction than in fiction. Even if a nonfiction book isn’t very well written, readers can often learn something from it, and even if they never actually read the book, they can still learn things from the review. People like learning things! So while a review of a work of fiction absolutely must discuss the book as an aesthetic object, often readers are perfectly happy to read a nonfiction review that basically decants the most interesting parts of the book and serves as an alternative to actually reading it.
Are you able to read a book without your critic-mind infiltrating?
The argument I make in my book is about the value of getting beyond the idea that our initial reading experiences are Edenic and that the eventual growth of our critical faculties represents a fall from grace or innocence. There’s a further stage of growth as a reader in which you can experience both the pleasure of getting lost in a book and the awareness of the book as a work of art. You can have both experiences at the same time, without the diminishment of either one. Actually, reading isn’t the only area of life in which this can happen; it’s one of the benefits of getting older, if you can manage it. You see experiences in many layers at once. But you do have to really work at it to get to that point. It takes practice.
What was the last book you read that used symbolism well?
Pretty much every good work of fiction does this. The most recent really good novel I read was “The Marriage Plot” by Jeffrey Eugenides, but I suppose most readers would not peg that book as particularly symbolic. So, off the top of my head: the way that fertility serves as the epitome of female power and vulnerability at the same time in Ann Patchett’s “State of Wonder.”
Read Laura’s reviews, essays, and interviews at Salon
Learn more about The Magician’s Book
Buy The Magician’s Book from Indiebound
Visit Glenn Kurtz’s website
If you’re in the New York City area, you should check out McNally Jackson’s events
The summer issue of Bookforum features a collection of critical essays about bestselling books. Ruth Franklin, literary critic and senior editor at The New Republic, discusses the history of the infamous list and book critic for the Washington Post Michael Dirda talks about how bestselling aspirations of publishers and authors affect the literary scene.Ruth Franklin begins her piece with a dose of humor and poignancy, “The term best seller has always been a misnomer. Fast seller would be more appropriate, since the pace of sales matters as much as the quantity.”
She looks into where the lists get their numbers from: the New York Times bases its numbers on approximately four thousand unnamed booksellers, the Wall Street Journal uses the respected industry source Nielsen BookScan, which grabs its numbers from three-quarters of the nation’s bookstores, and IndieBound goes by what the independent bookstores are selling. Amazon.com, somewhat misleading, is based on orders not actual sales and is updated hourly. After this bit of technical background, Ruth dives right into the cultural history:
“If people look to literature to explain themselves to themselves, then the popular novelists of the past, whose books once lined the shelves of every well-appointed middle-class home, can tell us a lot about the preoccupations of the people who read them. The story that emerges from the novels that triggered national obsessions constitutes a map of the mainstream—and its changing boundaries over the years.”
“The book business began to change in the ’70s. Literary novels were still a regular feature during this era, with Ragtime, Sophie’s Choice, and Humboldt’s Gift all appearing on the list. . . . But if the list was not yet as mass-market-heavy as it would become in the ’80s and ’90s, there was nonetheless a marked decline in the literary level that reflects the changing marketplace.”
“A combination of factors brought about the homogenization of the best-seller list that began in the late ’70s and continues today. First, consumers’ shopping patterns changed: Readers who had once depended on the Book of the Month Club to supply them with popular fiction now could find discounted hardcovers at mall retailers like Waldenbooks. Then the ‘superstores’ pioneered by Barnes & Noble began to edge independents out of the market, which made publishers less inclined to publish the quirkier fiction in which the smaller bookstores specialized. Meanwhile, the conglomeration of publishing houses under larger and larger umbrellas meant that profits were often managed by distant executives who prioritized the bottom line over promoting literary culture, making editors less likely than ever to take risks on anything beyond the mainstream.”
You can listen to her discuss her research on ABC Radio National’s Book Show.
Michael Dirda pulls no punches, opening with “However you refer to it, list is a disaster for literary and general culture.” He goes on to explain, “I think it’s bad for readers, bad for publishing, and bad for culture. Above all, despite appearances, the best-seller list isn’t populist; it’s elitist.” He feels that if both bestseller lists and tables were to disappear “People would spend more time browsing a bookstore’s stock . . . they would actively engage with a greater portion of our literary culture” and that readers “might even discuss their tastes with the shop’s owner or staff, who would actually recommend a few appropriate titles.”
Echoing sentiments that can be heard from a few authors these days, he continues “In the past, a decent author photo, the solicitation of a few blurbs, and an occasional bookstore reading were all that a writer was expected to do to promote his or her work. No longer. You need an author website, Twitter account, Facebook page, YouTube video, and blog to which you contribute posts every day.” In the end he offers some sage advice: “Think outside the list.”
Where do you find your next book? Who do you trust for suggestions? If you’re lucky enough to have independent bookstores in your town or city do you notice a difference between the books they carry and what the box stores display on their tables?
I’m fortunate to have great independent stores in my area—and to be honest, my local Barnes & Noble is large enough to carry more than the average fair compared to their less-trafficked counterparts. I’m also lucky to have access to, what I’ll call, professional readers who are up on what’s new and what’s great—inside and outside of the bestseller lists. One such person who I spent a Friday evening with at my local indie, WORD, for their Literary Karaoke night was Ed Champion, host of The Bat Segundo Show, a literary podcast, and editor of Ed Rants, a literary website. I’d mentioned that I was on a science fiction kick—no surprise to those who follow my blog—and he picked out two of his favorites. They are, in no particular order:
Spaceman Blues: A Love Song by Brian Francis Slattery
The publisher describes it as “a literary retro-pulp science-fiction-mystery-superhero novel, the debut of a true voice of the future, and a cult classic in the making.” If it’s as fun as the cover, it should be a great read.
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
This biopunk novel is set in a future Thailand where the entire global economy is built on calories; where the heroine, Emiko, is a “windup girl,” a genetically modified being created by the Japanese as a toy. Lev Grossman of TIME magazine, in his roundup of top ten fiction for 2009, called Bacigalupi “a worthy successor to William Gibson” and described the novel as “cyberpunk without computers.” Boing Boing called it “an exciting story about industrial espionage, civil war, and political struggle, filled with heart-thudding action sequences, sordid sex, and enough technical speculation for two lesser novels.” The Windup Girl won both the Hugo and Nebula Award for Best Novel in 2010.
Ed also interviewed Paolo. You can listen to it here.
Another book that caught my attention this week, which is not science fiction, was:
Ladies and Gentlemen: Stories by Adam Ross
Acclaimed author of Mr. Peanut is back with a book of short fiction billed as a “darkly compelling collection of stories about brothers, loners, lovers, and lives full of good intentions, misunderstandings, and obscured motives.” One of Adam’s biggest supporters, Rebecca of the wildly popular Book Lady’s Blog, says: “this collection establishes Ross as a writer unconstrained by format, one who doesn’t need the bells and whistles, twists and turns, regardless of how skillfully he deploys them.”
You can listen to Adam discuss his collection on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show.
There’s something very human about making lists. We’re always looking forward; we always have something on our minds. For me, along with all my fellow compulsive readers, it’s books. It takes all my willpower to leave a bookstore without buying something—and every so often I succeed; but it’s not without taking a picture of a cover or making a mental note of one more book I’d like to read. Here are a few that have been on my mind, or on my shelf, for some time now that are at the forefront of my reading list. Feel free to add them to your own.
Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War by Deb Olin Unferth
I’ve seen Deb read twice for her book and both times she was downright funny and adorable. Revolution has gotten an incredible amount of praise in all the right places. Revolution is a memoir of the year Unferth took off to join the revolution in Central America. It was 1987; she was 18 and in love with a George, the philosophy major and reason for her newfound solidarity with the southern hemisphere.
Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays by David Foster Wallace
I still haven’t read DFW and am somewhat ashamed to admit this, although not as ashamed as those who say they loved (loved!) Infinite Jest should feel. I’m convinced those people are either pretentious or lying, or both. Ok, I kid, don’t flame me. But seriously, I still haven’t read him and I feel like I’m missing out on an important piece of the literary universe. Consider the Lobster, I’ve been told, is his best nonfiction work so it seems like a good place to start.
Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
The way I’ve heard this described it sounds like it has some worthwhile philosophical element to it, like Milan Kundera’s works, which I loved in my 20s. It makes sense since it’s a French novel and those people sure do love their philosophy. From what I understand it’s a novel about a cleaning lady who pretends to be ignorant meanwhile she’s a brilliant autodidact. I’ve picked it up off the Europa display about three times now. Next time I just might walk out the door with it—after paying, of course.
Mythologies by Roland Barthes
Speaking of French philosophers. I hear this is Barthes’ most accessible book. Born in 1915, Barthes was part of the Structuralist school founded in France in the 1950s and 60s that believed human culture could be studied through its use of signs. Mythologies, as the title would lead one to believe, is a look at modern (in Barthes’ time) myths.
Embassytown by China Mieville
This guy is huge in my area. China is a British fantasy writer (and a very attractive one at that). Embassytown is his latest and it sounds very scifi, dystopian. Everyone who I respect is raving about him so I think it’s high time I picked him up.
Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
With the HBO series going on, this one is on my radar. My friend Stephanie, who’s a big fantasy fan, says that this is trashy genre at its best.
Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
Um, Neil Gaiman. Need I say more?
an essay on China and his work (2009) at TheMillions
a review of Embassytown at TheMillions (staff pick)
a review of Revolution at TheMillions
Deb Olin Unferth on The Bat Segundo Show
Neil Gaiman’s website
the first time i gave any thought to literary translations was when a friend bemoaned her inability to read french. she felt she missing the true experience of a novel she was reading. for a while i was convinced that my translated dostoyevsky was inferior and the author possibly not worth reading until i mastered Cyrillic. since the initial shock of realizing that what was in my hands was not the author’s original work, i’ve come to trust the art of translation—especially those of well-regarded translators. translations matter, translators matter, and for those who don’t have time to master multiple languages, they are essential. there is no lack of discussion within the literary community on this theme and i always enjoy hearing what authors and critics have to say.
i recently came across the essay of jorges luis borges, ‘two ways to translate,’ in his nonfiction collection, on writing. here’s an excerpt where he discusses two approaches to translation:
Universally, I suppose there are two types of translations: one is the practice of literality, the other, paraphrase. The former corresponds to the Romantic mentality, the second to the classical. I’d like to explain this statement in order to diminish its aura of paradox. The classical way of thinking is interested only in the work of art, never the artist. The classics believe in absolute perfection and seek it out. They despise localisms, oddities, contingencies. Poetry must be a beauty similar to the moon: eternal, dispassionate, impartial. The metaphor, for example, is not considered by classicism as either emphasis or personal vision, but as the attainment of poetic truth, which, once engineered, can be (and should be) seized by all. Each literature possesses a repertory of these truths, and translators know how to take advantage of it and to pour the original not only into words but into the syntax and usual metaphors of his language. This procedure seems sacrilegious to us, and sometimes it is. Our condemnation, nevertheless, suffers from optimism, since most metaphors are no longer representations, but merely mechanical. Nobody, upon hearing the adverb “spiritually” thinks of breath of air, or of the spirit; nobody sees any difference (not even of stress) between the phrases “dreadfully poor” and “poor as a church mouse.”
Inversely, Romantics never seek the work of art, but rather the man himself. Man (as we already know) is neither timeless nor an archetype, he’s Jack So-and-So, not John Doe; he possesses a way of being, a body, an origin; he does something, or nothing, has a present, past, future, and even his death is his own. Beware of twisting one word of any he wrote!
That reverence for the I, the irreplaceable human difference that is any I, justifies literal translations.