truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (writing: catfish)
What with the whiny princess feet, I've been thinking a lot about the Little Mermaid recently.

I should say clearly, btw, that I hate Hans Christian Andersen. Terry Pratchett is on record as hating Lewis Carroll, and the way he feels about Carroll, although completely antithetical to my experience of Carroll, is pretty much word for word the way I feel about Andersen: "I didn't like the Alice books because I found them creepy and horribly unfunny in a nasty, plonking, Victorian way. Oh, here's Mr Christmas Pudding On Legs, hohohoho, here's a Caterpillar Smoking A Pipe, hohohoho. When I was a kid the books created in me about the same revulsion as you get when, aged seven, you're invited to kiss your great-grandmother."

Except, of course, that Andersen has no particular sense of humor.

As alert readers of the Doctrine of Labyrinths will probably have noticed, there is one Andersen story I like: "The Tinder Box." But "The Steadfast Tin Soldier"? No. "The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf" Hell, no. "The Little Mermaid"? No no no.

I should also say that, while (having a weakness both for musicals and for animated films) I enjoyed Disney's Little Mermaid, I was aware from the beginning that it was a cheat--quite literally the Disneyfied version. In many ways, it's a more satisfying story than Andersen's, but Andersen seems to have been quite deliberate in his choice to tell UNsatisfying stories. (N.b., I am not and do not pretend to be an Andersen scholar; I'm only going on my memories of the stories of his I've read.) And, you know, I do genuinely respect that as a choice, but that doesn't mean I have to like it.

spoilers for Peter Straub's novels SHADOWLAND and THE THROAT )
truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (Default)
Okay, yes, I am a nut for retellings and/or reimaginings of stories, so it's not surprising that I liked Fangland quite a bit.

The following discussion is intensely spoilery, to the point that it will probably only make sense if you've already read Fangland. The short, book-review version is that I liked this book a lot, although I think it has some problems. It will be most rewarding for people who have read Dracula, but it has things to say of its own.

spoilers for Fangland and Dracula )
truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (Default)
Kaplan, Louise J. The Family Romance of the Impostor-Poet Thomas Chatterton. New York: Atheneum, 1988.

But, Mole, you say--and rightly so--the only thing you hate more than biographical criticism is Freudian biographical criticism. What are you doing reading this book?

Well, you see, it was on the five-dollar table . . .

Okay, so I disagree with Kaplan's psychoconceptual model--and that on several levels, because (1) I can't read--much less say--with a straight face passages like, "By proving that something which is not real is real, the imposter allays his mutilation anxiety. That peculiar logic derives from an image of something he has seen and found so frightening that he must prove it isn't real. The terrifying image that must be denied and reversed is that of the woman's penisless genitals, a sight that arouses anxiety in most little boys, but absolute terror in fatherless boys who have no masculine ally around to defend them from the all-powerful, swallowing-up mother" (217). And (2) even if I could, I am deeply deeply dubious about applying straight-up Freudianism to the psychosexuality of any subject born before about 1850. Freud's theory is based on a very particular definition of sex and the difference--and relationship--between the sexes. (Also a very particular definition of childhood, and of the gendered basis of parenting, and so on and so forth.) I don't think it applies very well to people who weren't brought up with those definitions.

(There are things Freud articulates that I do think are useful--the nature of the unheimlich is one--but almost none of them has anything to do with sex. My personal opinion about Freud's theories of sexuality is that we've spent a century being brainwashed by one man's rationalization of his own sexual hang-ups. But I digress.)

The fact that I don't agree with her theory doesn't mean I can't find interest and value in her book, and in fact much of Kaplan's book, the parts that are either straightforward biographical investigation or engagement with Chatterton's other biographers, are fascinating. And my principal objection to biographical criticism doesn't so much apply to Chatterton. The nature of his enterprise (amateurish forging of fifteenth century poetry--which nevertheless managed to fool a great many men who should have known better), and the fact that he was only 17 when he committed suicide, means that the connections between his life and his writing are transparent. I'm even convinced that in Chatterton's case, the obsession with the absent father explains a good deal.

What interested me most was the relationship between Chatterton and his biographers--the gaps and discrepancies and outright fabrications in the stories they tell about him vs. the (really sufficiently odd all on their own) things we know about his life and psyche from his own writing. To me that's the most fascinating thing about biography: the attempt or the refusal to make a narrative, and what agendas those narratives may serve.
truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (ws: puppet)
02/21/2011: Due to spam, I'm turning off comments for this post.

I'm giving up on numbering these. It's just going to depress me.

long and litcritty )
truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (btvs: buffyfaith-poisoninjest)
ETA: since [ profile] metafandom has apparently linked to this post sans context, let me state explicitly that I'm talking about the MISLABELING of original fiction featuring a same-sex relationship--as for example, [ profile] matociquala's Carnival--as slash in reviews and commentary by people who are not slash writers themselves. I'm not trying to talk about what slash writers choose to do within their fandoms and communities. Not a slasher. Don't play one on TV. I'm arguing that slash, as a term, belongs to fanfiction, and should not be applied to works that are not fanfiction. My reasons for feeling as I do, explained in the following post, stem partly from my own career as a pro writer whose work features a lot of same-sex relationships, and partly from my appreciation, as a genre theorist, of the intertextual subversion inherent in what slash does.

The subtext, as Giles says to Buffy in "Ted," is rapidly becoming text.


More specifically, let's talk about slash and why it is offensive and heteronormatizing to equate it with homosexual relationships.

The subversion/containment model (proposed by Foucault and applied by a bunch of New Historicist critics in the 1980s) has buried somewhere in the unexamined assumptions of its premise the notion that somehow subversion is bad. Or nonsustainable. Conservation of energy. A society tends to conserve the status quo.

This may be descriptively true (she says, looking dourly at her own society), but prescriptively, it sucks major moose cock, because it assumes that subversion exists to be contained. Hence Natalie Zemon Davis's elaboration of Foucault with her "pressure-valve" idea. (Which, btw, I think is incredibly helpful for understanding extremely conservative societies--like I said, descriptively the idea can be very helpful.)

Slash is subversion.

(For those of you who are still wondering what on earth I'm talking about, slash is a kind of fanfiction which posits a romantic/sexual relationship between two characters who in canon have no such thing. You might also describe it as an underground movement. It's named for the labelling convention that marks it; the first slash was K/S: Kirk-slash-Spock.)

Slash says, "These two canonically romantically-uninvolved characters have a close, intense, and obviously loving relationship. Our society--as inscribed on these characters by censorship and other kinds of normatizing pressure--does not allow that relationship to be developed in a sexual way. Let's transgress the taboo."

Now, obviously, that transgression can be done mindfully or otherwise, but the key component to slash is the overt sexualization of a non-sexual, or only subtextually sexual, relationship.

That relationship is, 9 times out of 10, between two men. Because, 9 times out of 10, the most intense and interesting relationship in any given canon is--wait for it--between two men. (And that has to do with a whole bunch of other factors and influences including, you know, four or five millennia worth of patriarchy.)

Now, why am I so adamant that slash is not the same as homosexual relationships?

Because I insist that homosexual relationships ought not to be categorized as subversive.

(Okay, yes, leftist liberal commie bitch, that would be me. Please don't tell me you're surprised.)

Labelling a homosexual relationship in a work of fiction as slash is wrong for a couple of reasons. One is that it's eliding the line between a work of fiction and commentary ON that work of fiction. I think it's inherent to slash that it is subverting and deconstructing and undercutting a canon text's assumptions about sexuality and love (using "text" here in a broad and metaphorical sense, rather than the literal one of words-printed-on-a-page). Slash is a game played with canon, and part of its value is in the tension it both creates and illuminates between canon text and subtext.

The other reason that it's wrong to label homosexual relationships, whether in or out of fiction, as slash is that it is reinscribing heteronormativity on our society and our discourse. It's a syllogism. Slash is gay sex. Slash is subversive. Therefore, gay sex is subversive. The subversion/containment model is a BOX, and as long as we keep putting homosexual relationships in that box, we are reinforcing the idea that heterosexuality is the standard by which all other sexualities will and ought to be judged. The same idea that is powering the (often hysterical) attempts to define marriage in such a way that gay and lesbian people cannot have it. Because their committed monogamous relationships are being judged as subversive.

And that's so horribly wrong that it's eaten all my words.
truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (mfu: ik-eyebrow)
I don't think I'm going to shock anyone by admitting I'm a slavering David McCallum fangirl, nor by admitting that that's the reason I was interested in Sapphire and Steel in the first place.

This entry, however, is not about my slavering David McCallum fangirlness. We can all take that as read. Nor is it about how much I admire Joanna Lumley's acting chops. Nor even about the loveliness of the show's design, which takes its extremely low budget and makes it a virtue by essentially creating stage-plays for television.* I want to talk instead about the missing narratives of Sapphire and Steel.

spoilerific, if that bothers anyone about a twenty-five year old show )

*By which I mean there are three or four principal actors, the special effects are almost all done with light and sound (and some crazy contacts for Lumley), and the episodes feel like stage-plays. The action happens far more through the dialogue than any other medium.
truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (Default)
My article on world-building, "The Importance of Maps" is part of September's Broadsheet, at Broad Universe.

It's free. Go read.
truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (mfu: ns-napoleon & albert)
And the trouble with sff is that it's a living genre.

Not, mind you, that this is "trouble" in most contexts. It's a joy and a delight--except when you want to talk about it as a genre, and then it's like trying to take still photographs of a rapidly moving object, such as a kitten or a dragonfly.

I'm thinking about this specifically because two people can be talking about "science fiction" or "fantasy" and mean the same general pool of books, and yet be talking about two completely different things.

Let me 'splain. We have (fortuntately or unfortunately) plenty of time.

Most genres talked about by academic genre theorists are genres that are either dead (seventeenth century English revenge tragedy) or have such a tremendous weight of tradition (the sonnet) that there is some common ground, certain things that do in fact characterize the genre.

Now fantasy and science fiction are, in the first place, Frankenstein's monsters. They're hybrid genres, taking things from the gothic, from the modern novel, from the romance, from the avant garde and surrealisme and experimental literary fiction, from the travel narratives and utopias of earlier centuries, from the pulps, from detective novels and film noir ... a smidgen of this, a snippet of that; they beg, borrow, and steal without shame of any kind. Oh, and then they just plain make shit up. And there are no protocols for it. Nothing's off-limits, and, contrariwise, there's nothing that everybody MUST use, or they'll be drummed out of the regiment and their propellor of their propellor beanie ceremonially broken.

But fantasy and science fiction are also, as I write this in the middle of A.D. 2006, genres that have accreted a certain amount of tradition of their own. Certain things that, yes, you can point to and say, "this is characteristic of the genre." But just because they're characteristic, doesn't mean that they're compulsory, either. Because, see above re: hybrids.

And so there are two (at least two) quite different ways that a reader in the sff genre can approach a novel. I'm going to call these two approaches Protean and Procrustean (Proteus being the chap in Greek myth who had no fixed shape and Procrustes being the fellow with the bed where if you were too short, you got the rack, and if you were too tall, you got bits of you lopped off until you fit), because, as I said in an earlier post, as a member of the species Homo sapiens sapiens, I need to name things in order to talk about them. Neither Proteus nor Procrustes was exactly the sort of guy you'd want to be trapped in an elevator with.

The Protean reader is the reader who loves hybridity and fusion and subversion, who's bored by traditional treatments of genre tropes and shouts with joy at particularly clever deconstructions, who seeks out moral ambiguity and difficult protagonists. (True Confession: I am myself a Protean, both as a reader and as a writer.) The Procrustean reader is the reader who prefers conventions to be followed, who isn't interested in experimentation or transgression.

Protean readers tend not to like Procrustean books, and vice versa.

And both readers and writers can be Protean in one respect and Procrustean in another. It's not a tidy binary.

Now the snag is that both Proteans and Procrusteans love sff. But when they want from sff are quite different things, and when they talk about sff, it can get a little like the North-Going Zax and the South-Going Zax: everybody's going the right way and nobody's going to step aside.

Proteans see the glory of a genre that will let you get away with anything you have the cojones to try. Procrusteans see the security of a genre that has a good seventy-year tradition, that has developed certain rubrics about narrative and characterization and world-building. And because these two approaches are as hopelessly entangled as the genres of fantasy and science fiction themselves, there's no way to separate them into camps. (Anybody else remember the old MTV spot with Dennis Leary: "Okay, the shiny people on this side of the bus, and the happy people on this side.")

People are coming to sff, in other words, with widely divergent expectations of what they're going to find.

And as an sff writer that's frustrating. Because, believe me, whether we're Procrusteans or Proteans, we're not setting out deliberately to disappoint people. But the genre has such a wide range of readers, it's like trying to aim a cannon loaded with buckshot at a single dandelion clock.

Of course, this is nothing new. But I've been trying to figure out a way to articulate the muddle, and this is as close as I've gotten. It's the same genre, but there are two sets of (sometimes oppositional) genre expectations at work.

The trouble with poets is still that they talk too much.
truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (Default)
[ profile] wicked_wish was talking recently about the difference(s) between fantasy, science fiction, and horror, and whether we really need dividing lines or not. And the subject has been niggling at me ever since. Not, of course, that the world particularly needs my opinion, but hey. What is the internet for (besides porn and cat pictures) if not for sharing unsolicited opinions?

There are three quite different answers to the question of whether the Siamese triplet genres of fantasy, science fiction, and horror need to be separated:

1. Yes.
2. No.
3. They're just marketing categories.

Let me deal with the three in reverse order.

3. They're just marketing categories. )

2. No. )

1. Yes. )
truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (mfu: ik-phd)
So in my LibraryThinging1, I've reached John Bellairs and The House with a Clock in its Walls, which is possibly the first book I ever read that scared the living daylights out of me.

I love it with a passion.

And I discovered, trying to make LibraryThing cough up the right edition (still its most aggravating flaw), that (aside from a "Just for Boys" edition that, um, clearly hasn't talked to any ten year old girls recently) there is a study guide.

Now, you would think, what with the Ph.D., and the geekiness, and the bookmania, that I would be tickled pink that someone thinks teaching The House with a Clock in its Walls is a good idea.

However, comma, you would be wrong.

I'm all in favor, mind you, of teachers encouraging kids to read THwaCiiW and talking with them about it and so on. But that's not what a "study guide" suggests. A "study guide" suggests that we must learn from THwaCiiW, that we must lay it out like a patient etherized upon a table and dissect its inner workings. And I think that approach does both kids and book a terrible disservice.

There are those who complain that studying English literature "takes all the fun out of reading," or "destroys people's enjoyment of books." My experience has been that this is simply not true, that having a command of the tools of critical reading makes reading a richer, deeper, and exponentially more rewarding process. It may mean that there are certain books, certain authors, that one can no longer read because one has become sensitized to the shoddy and meretricious manipulations, or to the deathliness of the prose, or other characteristics that naïve readers do not notice. But what I've found is that there are always more books to read, and better books, and so there's no loss.

Okay, I'm also a first class geek, but we knew that already.

So what, you are probably asking, is my deal with Bellairs?

Well, here's the thing. There's a difference between reading critically (in the sense of reading with critical skills) and dissecting. Not all books--not even all good books--benefit from dissection. I know people have been disappointed that I haven't followed up my epic Sayers posts with similar disquisitions on other authors, but the reason for that is that a book has to be doing a certain kind of work in order for dissection to have value. And mostly, books that respond to this treatment are books that are already in the canon and doing very well, thank you.

This isn't a value-judgment; many of the books I love and reread don't do the kind of work I'm talking about. But if they aren't interested in building thematicosymbolic2 structures, any attempt to study them, beyond reading comprehension questions and cultural context as necessary, will kill them, because it will be asking students to find things in the text that the text wasn't interested in generating.3 And in trying to find the seeds of the onion, you tear the onion apart. The books become pale and lifeless, with all their clockwork gears showing.

And that's a terrible thing to do to a book.

1I find running through my head as I work, this little ditty: LibraryThing, you make my heart sing / You make everything / Groovy / LibraryThing, I think I love you. Because my brain will just not shut up.

2Some days I shouldn't be let loose on the English language.

3The Pooh Perplex is an extended, satiric exercise in doing exactly that.
      There's another post I could make about analysis reading against the text, but that's a hostile procedure. You do it to books that have something in them that needs to be killed--racism, sexism, sexual hypocrisy, etc. It can provide an astonishingly rich analysis, but if persuasive, it does guarantee that you will never be able to look at that particular book in the same way again.
      ETA: My post about X-Men: The Last Stand is a good example of an analysis that straddles the uneasy boundary between analysing with and against the text.
truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (mfu: gervaise)
The Mirador has a female narrator.

(For those of you who have read The Virtu, yes, it is who you think it is.)

She is the hardest damn character to write I have yet been afflicted with. (Notice the crucial word in that sentence is yet. *g*) And I've been thinking about why that's so.

There is historically a preponderance of male narrators in my work, between Booth, Felix, and Mildmay. I just did a quick tally on my bibliography, and although it's a little difficult to decide how to count, we can put it at approximately 14 to 4. (Things are a little more balanced if we make it simply protagonists, rather than narrators--17 to 9--although it's still not what you would call gender parity.)

This raises a number of questions. The first one, obviously, is Why do we care? What does it matter if I write about men? It's not like the feminist police are going to come and revoke my gender or anything.

And no, of course not, and there's a sense in which it doesn't matter, as long as I keep writing mindfully. After all, A Companion to Wolves has almost no (human) female characters at all, and it's probably the most feminist thing I've ever written. I can even claim that I write about men because I'm interested in power dynamics (especially in the psychosexual arena), and you can get at those a lot more clearly by putting a man in a feminized position than you can by putting a woman in a masculinized one.

(Remember that I have a Ph.D. I'm professionally trained in the fine art of persuasivity.)

There's another sense in which this issue does matter--and matters a lot--a sense that Virginia Woolf was talking about way back when and that we (women writers in the Anglo-American tradition) still haven't really come to grips with. I write more men than women because it's easier, and it's easier because ...


It's easier because Anglo-American narrative traditions support and expect a male protagonist. It's easier because the things we make stories about are traditionally male things. It's easier because I imprinted on male protagonists as a child far more strongly than on female. (Little Women and Anne of Green Gables did not do it for me. Tom Sawyer did.) It's easier because I, as a reader and writer, am conditioned to think about male protagonists. Part of my mind, down near the trapdoor to the subconsious, still thinks that men are more "interesting" than women.

For the record, this is complete and total bullshit.

It would be easy to get defensive here--and I have done in the past--and take a stand on the wacky ineffability of creativity. I don't control what my subconscious throws through the trapdoor at me, and attempts to do so are likely to sabotage the whole works. You have to dance with them what brung you, and what I've realized recently is that my male characters are much more likely to want to go dancing with me.

(No, this metaphor has nothing to do with heterosexuality. Felix loves to dance.)

I tend to be suspicious of metaphors for creativity that assign too much agency to made-up people. It feels like a cop-out, or like hypocrisy, or being so incredibly twee that one should be taken out and drowned in a bucket. But if we accept that the various imaginary people in my head are all aspects of my subconsious mind that don't have any other way to get expressed (i.e., they're all "me," and splitting them up into different characters with different names and behaviors and appearances and so on is merely a convenience for the story-telling engine), then I can go so far as to say that my male characters want to talk to me. Even taciturn ones like Mildmay. Or neurotically shy ones like Booth. My female characters don't.

I have a story that's been stalled out for *mumblecough* a really long time, and I think it's because I have two female protagonists who have gotten stuck in the scene where they have to talk to each other, and they stand there in the early morning sunlight on a New England beach and insist they have nothing to say. The hardest thing about writing A Gift of Wings was Agido's voice. (I'm still not entirely happy about it, but the published version is exponentially better than the original first person version.) One way I know that the ftm transsexual who's appeared in my head is genuinely a man, despite accidents of birth biology, is that he wants to talk. He wants to show me things and tell me about his life. His female cousin is, metaphorically speaking, sitting leaned way back in her chair with her arms crossed.

I don't think, by the way, that this has anything to do with the gender performances of men and women in the world outside my head. But inside my head (--it's too dark to read. --Shut up, Groucho.), among the people I make up, a characteristic of men is that they will cooperate with the narrative. Women mostly won't. The female narrator of The Mirador was actually lying to me. (Here again, that looks almost like a cop-out, but I don't know any better way to describe it.)

What does all this mean?

Damned if I know.

The whole tangled mess is a problem. In the general, it's something that feminist writers (I think) have to at least take into consideration as they write, whether they choose to allow it to affect their narrative choices or not; in the particular ... well, at least now I've articulated what the problem is.

And maybe I can start figuring out ways to convince my female characters to talk.
truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (Default)
UBC #18
Fletcher, Angus. Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode. 1964. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1995.

This book went back and forth between ideas and articulations that I found useful and thought-provoking, and statements so contrary to my understanding of literature that all I could write in the margin was NO.

It suffers from a tendency toward Causabonism: the desire to make one's theory the Grand Unifying Theory of Everything. In Fletcher's case, this involves asserting that mysteries, westerns, and science fiction are allegories without actually wanting to--you know--go slumming to prove it. Which is a pity, because there are ways in which he's right about science fiction, and ways in which a careful consideration of its tropes would actually have informed his argument helpfully.

And I come away from this book with a theoretical question of my own. I don't agree that science fiction and fantasy are allegories in the way Fletcher wants to claim they are, but I think one way to frame fantasy1 is to describe it as an allegorical landscape through which realistic2 characters move. Because there's no denying that the landscape of fantasy has a heavy allegorical charge, but the characters who interact with that landscape are not allegorical daemons, to use Fletcher's term. They're mimetic.

And that makes fantasy a rather odd beast. Like a chimera.

1I'm less certain that this applies to science fiction. Or, rather, I think it may apply to some works of science fiction, but not others, and that in turn may depend on whether the work in question is rooted in the novel or the romance. Growing Up Weightless, for example, has a distinctly allegorical landscape.
2"Realistic" is an awful word. I mean, in this case, characters who obey the tenets of realism in literature, i.e., they have psychological consistency.
truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (writing: fennec-working)
This is me, avoiding my book which is due in a month.

Cleverly, I have found an occupation that feels just like grad school only without the part where I ever have to leave the house.

But I've been thinking. This is what happens: I make a post, people respond, I think, I make another post. Lather, rinse, repeat.

And I've decided that the concept I want to hang "hard fantasy" on is rigor.

This is, in some serpentine fashion, where "hard sf" gets the moniker from, too. The "hard sciences" are the ones with (self-proclaimed) rigor (i.e., mathematics); hence the anxiety in the "soft sciences" (I'm going to have to send the cabana boys out for more quotation marks here in a minute) about designing studies to achieve greater and greater mathematicality, and the hand-wringing and despair in the humanities that they can't be reduced to mathematics at all.

Hopefully, some of these attitudes are outdated, but they were definitely alive and well at my undergraduate institution (Case Western), where the superiority of the engineering side of campus to the liberal arts side of campus was proclaimed on one side and contested on the other, but always there.

We will notice also that you get points for abstractness. The myriad impenetrabilities of certain French literary theorists and the Anglophone writers who imitate them may be seen as a kind of Azaz's Revenge: "We can be just as incomprehensible as you!"

So, anyway. Rigor.

I'm going to define rigor as thinking things through. Notice that things is not specified in this definition. It can be your scientific whirligig, or your sociological speculation, your system of magic or your proposition about the nature of ghosts. What gives rigor (in my new and shiny model) isn't the premise. It's the treatment of the premise.

"The thing about magic?" Spike says to Willow and Xander at the beginning of Season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. "There's always consequences." BtVS had a kind of mixed track record on its own follow through, but it articulated the principle.

There's always consequences.

And so when I say rigor, what I mean is, consequences. There have to be consequences, and they have to be far-reaching, like Asimov's comment about the influence of the invention of the automobile on the sociosexual behavior of American adolescents. Cause-and-effect is a good start, but things are never that simple. Think of V's dominoes in V for Vendetta. My favorite thing about rigorous sff is the moment when, as a reader, you say, "I never would have thought of that. But he's right." That little mental click! of the Rube Goldberg/Heath Robinson machine completing its circuit--that's the payoff.

The other thing about rigor, and why it's valuable as an apparatus, is that it cannot coexist with clichés. I think one of the worst things a work of sff can do is think with its genre conventions: to have things happen because "that's what always happens." So you put a Dark Lord in because all fantasies have one, or you let your spaceship captain get the girl, because that's how the story goes. And you lose some fraction of your readers' attention, because they've seen this all a thousand times before. Worse than that, you shut yourself off from whole ranges--positive Himalayas--of possibilities. What if the Dark Lord's dead, and his minions are trying to figure out what to do now? What if instead of the spaceship captain getting the girl, the girl gets the spaceship? And those are just simple examples--a mere foothill, as it were.

I'm indicted in this, as well. One reason I'm avoiding my book that's due in a month is because I have to dismantle and rebuild great tracts of character motivation and interaction that are based, in the current draft, on genre conventions. Not on the characters themselves, but on fitting them into a particular bracket where, as it happens, they don't belong. Their part of this book has been, therefore, trite and wrong, and I'm only grateful [ profile] matociquala called me on it.

Now, obviously, the last couple of paragraphs have gotten very prescriptive, rather than simply descriptive, as my theorizing elides into my practice. So, no, of course not everyone agrees with me, and of course there are very enjoyable books that don't set so much as a toe outside of the wading pool of convention and trope. (Even some very good books: I can't deny my love for Georgette Heyer, or that she was brilliant at what she chose to do. But, then, she wasn't writing sff. Romance is a different genre; its engine runs on different fuel.) But this is what I think about the genre I love.
truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (Default)
Yes, [ profile] mirrorthaw and I spent the afternoon in air-conditioned comfort.

And I came away thoughtful.

spoilers spoilers spoilers )
truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (Default)
"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents."
--H. P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu

Lovecraft is right, of course, the irony being that the correlation of seemingly unrelated ideas is how creativity works. Richard Hugo's The Triggering Town talks about this very helpfully in relation to poetry, as he describes the way a poem can be moved from its apparent subject to its real subject. And it's the thing that I found addictive about my college education: taking six different subjects at once resulted in some remarkable cross-pollinations.

It is also, of course, why fiction writers need to read nonfiction. Because we need those moments of brilliant cross-connect to generate stories.

It's also why [ profile] elisem's Artist's Challenges work; the yoking of words to metal forces exactly the kind of cascade-effect I'm talking about.

It is a drug, make no mistake. And that's why Lovecraft is right.

I had one of those blinding cross-connects this morning, thanks to [ profile] matociquala sending me the link to Ursula K. Le Guin's review of Jan Morris' Hav. (Which sounds like an awesomely cool book, and, yes, the review does leave me panting to find a copy.) Le Guin says:
This lack of plot and characters is common in the conventional Utopia, and I expect academics and other pigeonholers may stick Hav in with Thomas More and co. That is a respectable slot, but not where the book belongs. Probably Morris, certainly her publisher, will not thank me for saying that Hav is in fact science fiction, of a perfectly recognisable type and superb quality. The "sciences" or areas of expertise involved are social - ethnology, sociology, political science, and above all, history. ... Serious science fiction is a mode of realism, not of fantasy; and Hav is a splendid example of the uses of an alternate geography.

Whereas I, reading Le Guin's description of Hav--and noting her reference to her own Orsinian Tales--would describe it as fantasy.

But fantasy of a certain kind. And here's where the cross-connect happened, because yesterday, Bear and I were talking about the world-building in A Companion to Wolves (otherwise known as our wolf-smut book), and I fell over a distinction, like falling over a tree root, between "fantasy" and "hard fantasy." Which, as a back-formation from "hard science fiction," surely does look like a contradiction in terms, but bear with me for a minute.

Hard science fiction is science fiction grounded strongly in the "hard" sciences: physics, astronomy, chemistry, etc. It is also traditionally science fiction that has little or no interest in characterization or anything other than the Really Cool Shit (that being the technical term) its author has come up with. It is the science fiction that glorifies the sensawunda (sense of wonder) and believes this to be the genre's ultimate goal. It is also traditionally the preserve of male writers and readers, and the brouhaha starts up again periodically about whether women can or should be allowed to play with this particular set of tinker-toys.

You may suspect I am not in sympathy with hard sf; you would be right. However, my lack of sympathy is partly due to my own scientific ignoramity (I don't get a sensawunda charge off hard sf because I find the mental calisthenics distracting) and partly due to gender politics--not due to any feeling that wonder is out of bounds or childish or not worthwhile. In fact, my most recent encounter with a good sensawunda charge is The Lies of Locke Lamora, which I started yesterday. Wonder is not generated by science alone.

Hard fantasy, in my newly-minted definition, is fantasy that takes its world-building seriously, not as window-dressing or stage scenery, but as a necessary and important part of the story. And there are fantasies that do this, that are intent on working out the details, on having internal consistency of the slightly inconsistent kind that mirrors history most accurately, making their invented societies viable, making the imaginary world real and therefore, inevitably, a commentary on our own world.

... exactly what Le Guin says Morris is doing in Hav.

To-may-to, to-mah-to.

I've argued before that fantasy and science fiction have fundamental differences. Now I'm arguing that they don't. Or, rather, I'm arguing that while there are fantasies that have no truck with science fiction, and vice versa, there's also an area of convergence, where hard fantasy blends into illegitimate sf. Both of these are my own terms: fantasy that thinks about world-building in an sfnal way; sf that approaches its subject matter with a fantasist's sensibility.

Construct a theoretical model. Watch it spin. Take it down. Build another. Spin it around and see how it flies. Watch for the cross-connects that light up the internal landscape. I'm not saying this is how things are; I'm saying it's how they might be.


Jun. 7th, 2006 09:10 am
truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (writing: fennec)
"Somehow" is the weaseliest of weasel words.

The Turkey City Lexicon categorizes it under Fuzz: An element of motivation the author was too lazy to supply. The word "somehow" is a useful tip-off to fuzzy areas of a story. "Somehow she had forgotten to bring her gun."

And it isn't necessarily just motivations that "somehow" can be substituted for. It can also stand in for feats the author doesn't know how the character could have pulled off: "Somehow Superman freed himself from the kryptonite handcuffs." Or for secondary characters and antagonists doing three-quarters of the author's work for them while conveniently off-stage: "Somehow the Balrog had heard about Gandalf's weakness for chocolate liqueurs." And so on.

Moreover, "somehow" isn't limited to fiction. The book I'm currently reading, Angus Fletcher's Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode (Cornell UP, 1964), has this shining example in the middle of Fletcher's trying to explain why he can claim genre fiction (mysteries, westerns, and science fiction) as allegorical without having to do all the tiresome, degrading work of, you know, proving it: "But somehow the literal surface suggests a peculiar doubleness of intention" (7). "Somehow" here translates to "because I said so."

Which is its real meaning in fiction as well.
truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (Default)
UBC #13
Zwinger, Lynda. Daughters, Fathers, and the Novel: The Sentimental Romance of Heterosexuality. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.

This is, yes, fifteen-year-old feminist literary criticism. But it's very intelligent and it has things to say that I found very useful.

Zwinger's primary texts are Clarissa, Dombey and Son, Little Women, The Golden Bowl, and The Story of O, along with a final chapter on Austen, C. and E. Brontë, and George Eliot. And what's brilliant about this book is that it shows the ways in which The Story of O is a lineal descendant of the sentimental (in its technical sense) novels of the nineteenth century. O's efforts to remake herself into something that Sir Stephen will love is the same struggle, in a different register, as Florence Dombey's or Jo March's: the desire to please the patriarch, The Man. Zwinger's reading also makes sense, for me, of Little Women, for it points out that Jo's struggle is not to become an adult, independent woman writer (as we, as modern feminist readers, wish it was), but to become a daughter her father can be proud of. (And, yes, cue the teeth-grinding venom about Bronson Alcott.)

Zwinger is very clear on the ways in which feminist readers will find themselves misled and trapped in novels like Little Women. She is also brilliantly, brutally clear about Freud's self-interest in creating the family romance in such a way that the father is never at fault. The best Freudian criticism is always that which insists on pointing out that Freud himself was not a disinterested observer, that uses his ideas on his own writing.

like this )
Freudian criticism has to be approached warily, skeptically. (Freud's assertions about the gendered responsibilities of parents only works in the ideal bourgeois nuclear family, for instance, in which there are two parents, one of each gender, and the feminine parent cares for the children while the masculine parent leaves the house to work) But Zwinger uses it well and carefully, and she never forgets to examine her own subject-position as she goes.


truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (Default)

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