Archive

Criticism

https://i2.wp.com/www.litstack.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/among-others1.jpg

I should have liked Among Others. I’m the target audience: “geek” who found community among other sf/fantasy nerds as an adolescent. The fact that I didn’t like it means that I’m somehow out of touch with my own community since the book won the Hugo, Nebula, and British Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 2012.

(I won’t bother with the plot summary since other reviews have done it more concisely than I can.)

And yet the whole thing felt wrong. On the one hand, I just couldn’t get over the precious and self-satisfied sense of “insider-ness” of the book. The ideal reader is one who apparently clutches the book to one’s chest and sighs, “Oh, me, too!” (The gist: our narrator Mor constantly discusses the sf/fantasy books she’s reading while growing up in the late 70’s, and her reading list gives a structure to the novel.)

On the other, and this is worse, the book felt completely cynical about the shared experience it was supposed to create.

One way to put it is that the book undervalued the substance of genre fiction while glorifying in the culture of shared books. Or, alternatively, it said that all geeks really want is to be loved, not love to be different. Or, worst, it’s that the book suggests that there’s really nothing particularly interesting about genre fiction at all.

The central conceit seems to get right at that: Here’s a girl who actually lives the magic of fantasy. Her fairies are real. Her mother truly is a witch. And she can actually “do” magic. But she doesn’t think that magic is all that fun or interesting (in fact, she has very little curiosity about it), the books she talks about are usually there as occasions for her to feel superior or judgmental (of the authors’ or of other peoples’ reading habits), and when all is said and done, all she really cares about is making friends.

Now, that’s a perfectly fine and probably widely shared desire, and the metaphor even works. Let’s say there’s a girl who’s a whiz at math but really wants to have a circle of friends that she doesn’t get because she’s “left out” for her odd talent. Fair enough. But the problem is that Walton’s conclusion doesn’t really value the things that make those “geeks” exceptional in the first place. And the book’s backstory plays that out, suggesting that Mor’s sense of isolation began when she lost her twin, and everything else in her life (from reading to the fairies) is really just a supplement for that lost sense of connection.

And, in the end, the only thing Mor gains by reading sf/fantasy is a group of friends (and potential boyfriend) in a sf reading group she stumbles upon. The nerd makes friends, those friends help her avoid her insane mother, and they all go live happily in a safe, non magical world.

So, while the book was widely praised for giving voice to how young nerdish types found solace in genre fiction, it completely demystifies everything fantastic. Magic is made boring, the fairies are ultimately uninteresting, and all real wonder turns out to be dangerous (Mor’s mother, a witch, is trying to kill her, and Mor avoids magic to keep her mother from knowing where she is). Put the metaphor back on the math kid, and what value is the thing that makes her different? According to this book’s trajectory, she should find a way to “get over” math in order to find the things she really wants: a boyfriend (or, to be fair, friends). In other words, the things that make you weird (being magical, liking stories about magic, or, metaphorically, being “good at math” or whatever else takes you out of the mainstream), are only interesting in terms of how you can create community around them. It even might be suggesting that geek “culture” (whether of books or math or whatever marks people as non-mainstream) is just a symptom of some brokenness or lack and that thinking there’s some valuable in those non-mainstream interests is to misunderstand the real drama of being a “geek.”

And what does that do the sf/fantasy books the she loves? It makes them ciphers, nothing more. They’re a mark of difference with no real consequence. There’s nothing intrinsically magical about these shared genre books that form a community, not only in the fiction, but around all the fans who saw themselves and their own experience in the book. Replace the books with, say, a shared love of Australian rules football in rural Wyoming among a cast of misfits, and you essentially have the same story.

In other words, this book is not a love note to adolescent fandom. It’s a public apology for liking it in the first place. Once we grow up, find real people with real, let’s call them “mainstream” concerns, all that special stuff can fall by the wayside. We won’t need magic anymore because we’ll have friends. Sf/fantasy really is just escapism for the lonely.

And that can’t have been Walton’s purpose, at least I don’t imagine it is because of everything else she’s written. Walton elsewhere popularized the term “Suck Fairy” to describe what happens when you reread something you loved as a child that has had all the good and wonder sucked out of it – such a book must have been visited by the Suck Fairy. And yet reading Among Others, I felt like I was watching the Suck Fairy in action, like I was reading a fantasy novel about a girl who didn’t really want all the fantastic things she lived, like maybe the math genius who secretly didn’t want to be good at math. But the worse suspicion was that the Suck Fairy might not be a magical creature that comes and changes things. Instead, the Suck Fairy might be ourselves, prose overtaking poetry, age overtaking youth, or reality overtaking wonder. But if that’s the case, then I don’t want Walton’s version of being “Among Others” if it means that I have to “grow up” from the reasons I started reading this stuff in the first place.

In this case, and by heaping praise on the book, the sf/fantasy community got themselves very, very wrong.

http://humblereviews.files.wordpress.com/2011/06/room.jpg

Why is symbolism so clumsy? Even when it’s appropriate, even when it isn’t “in your face,” and even when it’s insightful and adds to a story, why does it still feel awkward? Is it because we’re allergic to allegory or to “deep meaning” when reading novels that aren’t supposed to be “great literature”? Why does it make me want to groan and roll my eyes even when I keep thinking about how effective it is days afterward?

There are many moments of intrusive symbolism in Emma Donoghue’s Room. They all occur as straightforward observations in the voice of the five year old narrator Jack. Jack spent his entire first five years believing that the world consisted only of the 11-foot square shed where his mother has been held prisoner by “Old Nick” who abducted her when she was 19 and rapes her nightly. Jack begins the story telling us that his mother has just informed him that Room isn’t all there is, and the rest of the novel is his re-entry into “Outside” as he and his mother escape and have to face the world.

Now, the good news is that Room turns lurid voyeurism into an almost charming fable. For that alone, it’s worth reading, even if it’s not the kind of thing I’d usually pick up. (It was a book club suggestion.) And Jack’s innocent and confused voice immediately takes the edge off of the obvious trauma that everyone around him undergoes, including “Ma”’s family who had already mourned her and who still see her abductor in Jack. And the book really is a story about growing up rather than about trauma, which is what makes it interesting. That attitude also makes the reliance on heavy-handed intentional symbolism seem occasionally appropriate.

But…those moments still nagged me in irritating ways. For example, Jack sees an aquarium in the lobby of the hospital where they arrive after escaping. The uncomfortable discussion about why the fish can’t leave and why they’re kept in a box for people to look at…sure, we get it. But it also seems so clumsy, so obviously a moment where we’d really appreciate a bit more subtlety.

One sentence in particular made me stop reading and hand the book to my wife (we were reading it together). My oh-so-delicate literary sensibilities just couldn’t handle the obviousness. Right after Jack performs the main action of their heroic escape (a fun if stressful story), he drops down on the sidewalk and says:

I’m sitting on a line so there’s some of me in one square and some in another.

Duh. Square: Room. Leaving one square. About to enter another. Confusion. On the line, at the limit, etc. It’s a perfectly appropriate moment of “symbolism” that’s supposed to intensify the psychological and narrative moment. It’s the kind of thing that probably gets taught in intro MFA courses. And I hated it because it was one of those moments where it felt like Donoghue had broken the otherwise scared little boy’s voice that had just been frightened by his first experience of trees, a dog, even distances of more than 11 feet into something that was so obviously almost reflective rather than emotional. It was too precious and broke my suspension of disbelief, and I have to admit that I had been pretty wrapped up in making sure Jack got away from Old Nick in visceral page-turning fashion. I was done for the night.

But that sentence kept coming back to me. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more right it was. It was more than the other spotlights thrown on windows, doors, etc., that peppered the book. And in spite of it’s being so blatantly “symbolic” as to almost work against the story in the moment, as a symbol it was powerful: Jack’s story wasn’t a story about escape or freedom (although his mother’s might have been). Jack’s was about moving between rooms, one small, maternal, enclosed, and safe, and another that was confusing, suffocating him not in space but in overload of information, suddenly dealing with other people, etc. “Outside” really was just another square to Jack, and his particular story of coming into the world required that perspective, not of simple inside/outside imagery. So Jack sitting on a line between two squares was pretty much the perfect “symbol” of what’s at stake for him in this story.

All good. But then why was I so irritated when I identified it as a moment of literary layering? I was already pretty sure that I was getting was a “message” story, not a realistic novel; it wasn’t simply being upset at the return of disbelief. And it wasn’t simply a moment of bad writing or craftsmanship (although maybe there was some of that in those moments…blurring the seams might be more effective). I don’t even think it was quite a generic problem in the sense that, say, allegory advertises its literary artifice, but novels are supposed to be primarily narrative and merely suggest such things. Every high school kid gets what a symbol is even when they’re rooting for Piggy to get gruesomely murdered in Lord of the Flies. So why did I get my aesthetic feathers ruffled?

The only decent answer I can come up with is that maybe “symbol” in narrative is naturally an irritation. A symbol has to be something that goes against the grain, that literally means something it doesn’t mean: a square of concrete IS NOT a room. For a symbol to work, it has to both embrace that an erase it. An effective symbol has to balance the IS and IS NOT of representing a false apparent world (the story) and a true meaning (the “deep” stuff) in such a way that neither overwhelms the other. The most effective symbols then appear at once accidental and predestined, surprising but culminating, uncanny but miraculous. Maybe this one just veered a touch too much toward the planned set-piece, which made its appropriateness all the more bothersome for not being as much a part of the moment of Jack’s otherwise convincing voice.

Literature is weird. I get grumpy when the things I want to find in it make themselves too apparent.

The Sept/Oct 2012 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction

The new issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, whose publishers generously sent us an advance copy, does some interesting things when you read its pieces as if they were meant to be published together.

It goes beyond a few pieces that have structural similarities, like the “life story” arcs of Ken Liu’s incredibly moving “Arc” (the story of a woman who chooses to die although her husband invents immortality technology) and Albert E. Cowdry’s “The Goddess” (which tells of a Indian immigrant living through the Civil War from the perspective of a devotee of Kali, the goddess of cyclical creation, destruction, and, ultimately, prosperity). It also moves beyond the thematic similarity of three pieces which deal with aching nostalgia for lost (or impossible) wonder and magic: Andy Duncan’s “Close Encounters” tells of a UFO visitee who misses his aliens, Lynda E. Rucker’s “Where the Summer Dwells” tells the story of a young girl who missed going to the world of Fairies with her friends because of an unfortunate traffic jam, and Richard Butner’s “Give Up” is about one man’s failed quest to climb Mount Everest due to a (possibly) malfunctioning virtual reality.

Choosing pieces for analogies like this can mark a smart, thoughtful editor.  But you can go further and look at the work itself as a kind of collaboration among people who aren’t directly communicating, much like Gilles Deleuze describes his work with Felix Guattari:

Our differences worked against us, but they worked for us even more. We never had the same rhythm. Felix would sometimes complain that I didn’t respond to the long letters he would send me: it’s because I wasn’t up to it, not at that moment. I was only able to use them later, after a month or two, when Felix had already moved on. And during our meetings, we didn’t dialogue: one of us would speak, and the other would listen. … Gradually, a concept would acquire an autonomous existence, which sometimes we continued to understand differently. … Working together was never a homogenization, but a proliferation, an accumulation of bifurcations, a rhizome.

Gilles Deleuze, “Letter to Uno: How Felix and I Worked Together”

The notion of collaboration without dialogue that never results in a single work or “homogenization” and just proliferates ideas is wonderful. It goes beyond praising the editor for finding different perspectives on the same topic (as this issue does with the Cowdry piece and the future-alternate-history-of-the-Civil-War-in-space of Michael Alexander’s “A Diary from Deimos”). Thinking this way also does more than just give us new insights into the individual pieces, which it certainly does. And it’s especially interesting of you think of the collaborations occurring both among the writers with each other and with the audience.

It’s always possible that trying something like this can lead to a confused hodge podge. Paul Di Fillippo’s always entertaining and thoughtful column (usually a satire or pointed fiction) “Call Me Ishmael: Choose Like/Dislike” takes this head on, imagining a novel written online in which “likes” and audience-enabled-editing produce a novel which is an instant hit but has no lasting quality. After working on a story whose sentences are altered by reader feedback even before the sentences appear on his word processor’s screen, he ends with a confused anti-climax:

In the space of a few seconds, I sold some 8500 books for ninety-nine cents apiece. Not a bad paycheck for a month’s work, tempered only by the knowledge that I’d never see another dime from the project. The spontaneous coalition of people who had worked on my novel with me – the only people in the world who could possibly be interested in such a random collage of a text – was already splintering and moving on to the next such project. Sure, I’d wistfully post my book on all the literary retail outlets with the millions of others like it. But chances were almost zero that anyone would ever see fit to sample or buy it. Audience and creators were one and the same.

But separation between reader and writers, and between writers, in an edited magazine leads to a much more satisfying type of interaction.

For example, I mentioned above that the theme of lost wonder crops up in at least two of the stories. We can imagine this issue as an analysis of that tendency. Duncan’s “Close Encounters” gives us Buck Nelson who had been visited by a spiritually profound alien from Mars decades earlier who introduced him to Martian and Lunar paradises with not only wonders but promises of spiritual renewal. Buck held outdoor “picnics” for years to teach the lessons of the good life he had learned and also to welcome another visit, which never came. Overcome by feelings of loss and neglect, he becomes a hermit, visited now only by the occasional reporter looking for a curiosity. His story is very sad, but Duncan offers him redemption, ultimately the reader’s wish-fulfillment fantasy, when the aliens finally return to show him that he wasn’t dreaming after all. This is the happy ending.

But Rucker’s “Where the Summer Dwells” tells the story of a young college student who knows that a magic “fairy world” exists, a kind of lost childhood. She knows because she experienced it once obliquely, and her, now lost, childhood friends seem to have disappeared into it. However, she lost her chance to go with them due to a freak circumstance of a traffic jam, and she lives her life wondering where the magic went. Unlike Buck’s last visit, Rucker leaves her story with both wonder and the loss of that wonder.

A third story, Peter Dickinson’s “Troll Blood,” finds an even more ambiguous resolution. Mari was the seventh child of a family with a legend that an ancestor had mated with a troll generations ago, which accounted for the occasional odd genetic traits that crop up. Of course, the legend turns out to be true, but the revelation that a fairy-tale-cum-fact accounts for her feelings of being a misfit does not resolve Mari’s life but rather changes it into another, perhaps weirder, form when she meets a troll who needs her to carry on his own (and her) lineage by bearing a child that isn’t (or isn’t wholly) her husband’s. Wonder is transformed into a difficult destiny.

Taken together, these three stories transform the idea of “wonder,” an idea which of course draws most readers to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in the first place, into a challenge: why bother with wonder? “Close Encounters” tells the dangers of believing what others won’t, and, although it ends with the fantastic promise that Mars is a paradise, despite what the scientists might tell us, turns wonder into counter-factual credulity, no matter how attractive it might be. “Where Summer Dwells” speaks of the fragility of wonder and the casualties that are left behind when we don’t find our way down the rabbit hole. And “Troll Blood” is perhaps the most disillusioning, turning myth literally into history, and a history which becomes a past that weighs directly on the present, not with the promise of a wider world, but with burdens we end up having to take upon ourselves.

Each story, by itself, begins in wonder, begins in a way that draws on its readers’ desire for something beyond the everyday. But each finds a way to chastise the readers, even as they show a remarkable understanding of why F&SF readers come to the magazine. Taken together, the three stories leave little room for wonder to re-emerge as a promise for something more: we’re either offered a childhood delusion, a lost chance, or simply a forgotten history which, when uncovered, is just another history.

I don’t want to say that these stories are anti-wonder or suggest that fantasy is bad for the reader. Instead, when read together, the stories show how difficult wonder actually is to generate and maintain. (And, individually, the three stories are, well, wonderful.) Instead, what they all point to is that the easy part of wonder is the anticipation, the early part. It’s what happens after the encounter that becomes difficult, and each of these stories are about those moments after wonder happens.

Wonder itself is that moment captured by the single poem in this issue, an alternate retelling of what happened when we gathered to watch the moon landings. Sophie M. White’s “Contact” describes a family buying a new TV, sitting down to watch the moon grow larger and then slowly resolve into a picture of the surface where, suddenly, creatures moved around until:

One moved quicker
And came in closer,
Filling up the screen.

And then
It licked
The lens.

This is wonder: do we laugh? Gape? Exult in the promises of new life? Simply get freaked out? The response to wonder happens after the poem and is unspoken. It’s what the other stories try to narrate, and each, in its own way, shows that no response to wonder matches up to the experience. It’s why we read the next story, to find again that which was there but wasn’t there, that moment when the thing licked the lens, a moment when our sense of the alien was both given a shape but also confused and confusing. It’s a moment that no one story can tell because one story becomes, like “Troll Blood” says, a single history with its weight and consequences. But wonder only happens within stories, within maybe multiple stories that each pull the same experience in different directions. Maybe in the end, wonder only happens between stories, after the disappointment that the last one gave up its mysteries and the next one is still a promise. If that’s the case, then wonder was really on there among all four: “Close Encounters,” ‘Where the Summer Dwells,” “Troll Blood,” and “Contact.” There’s more of wonder in their aggregate than any could produce on their own.

In other words: a very good issue. It does what I want it do when I read F&SF, which I’ve done for over 20 years now, which is not just showcase my favorite writers, but push me to think more about a genre I love. And I now have a bit more to say about wonder than I did before, something that I don’t know if Duncan, Rucker, Dickinson, or White (or even the editor Van Gelder) specifically wanted me to take from what they wrote. But that’s the fun of treating this magazine as more than occasional pieces that happen to be between the same covers. They were collaborators without knowing it.

You quoted Nietzsche, but I’ll quote you:

What’s disturbing about this thesis is the collapsing of the one into the other: every act of criticism, every act of reading which acknowledges the fiction yet keeps on reading – like men in theatre – would thus be the genealogical symptom of the very original, very lost rites of Dionysus. Nietzsche makes it hard not to keep coming back to Nietzsche.

So I have a question: is the critic one who follows Apollo, or is the critic Socrates? There’s a huge difference for Nietzsche. The Apollonian dimension is still an artistic force, something which is integrally tied to the Dionysian in art. But Socrates is a theoretician who moves beyond art completely, to the idea given in art without the need for its experience. Apollo still leads the audience to dream; Socrates would live in complete wakefulness. So when you talk about “every act of criticism, every act of reading,” are you speaking as Apollo or Socrates?

Read More

Perhaps others will recall, as I do, shouting out, sometimes successfully, words of encouragement in the midst of the perils and terrors of a dream: ‘It is a dream! I will dream on!’ – Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, 16

The contrast between this genuine truth of nature and the cultural lie which pretends to be the only reality is like the contrast between the eternal core of things, the thing-in-itself, and the entire world of phenomena; and just as tragedy, with its metaphysical solace, points to the eternal life of that core of being despite the constant destruction of the phenomenal world, the symbolism of the chorus of satyrs is in itself a metaphorical expression of that original relationship between thing-in-itself and phenomenon. The idyllic shepherd of modern man is merely a counterfeit of the sum of educated illusions which modern man takes to be nature; the Dionysian Greek wants truth and nature at full strength – and sees himself transformed by magic into a satyr. – Ibid., 41-2

I recently mentioned to you, Craig, that I think Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy ranks up there with Stanley Fish’s Surprised by Sin as one of the most important and elegant works of criticism.

What I meant is that it’s insuperable: once you entertain its thesis, you can’t ignore it. This is the case with Fish’s book. Try to teach Milton, and you can’t escape Fish’s description of our fallen love of Milton’s Satan as the poem’s central temptation, precisely designed to turn a critical lens back on ourselves as fallen readers of Milton.

Read More