Once again on Jemisin-related stuff, giving me an occasion to touch on other things as well.

I have the impression that in the journey toward a more progressive society things are getting very messy, and I’m conflicted between a certain pessimism in observing a decadent society that can only topple on itself, and a very timid optimism about certain healing properties that still exist within society and sometimes seem to also be able to compensate the worst coming out of it.

A lot of this conflict for me is based on the canons that make certain judgements. What defines discrimination, how to recognize it, how to fight it, how to understand and deal with very different and contrasting points of view when things are more blurred. Do you come with absolute certainties or doubts?

I do stop and think. I try to challenge certain points of view, then see my attempts fail making a dent. There’s so much noise and vitriol that it’s impossible to deal with a complex issue.

I do feel I’m being accused directly. But before I turn defensive I once again stop and think. I have my own honesty toward myself, my critical thinking. It’s first and foremost between me and myself, but regardless of my conclusions someone else will look at me and judge me, and decided what I have thought and why. I might be blind to my own racism. I might be dishonest with myself.

What can I do? Should I try defend myself, or defending myself would be just a further proof of being guilty? Should I shut up and just accept I’m a “white male predator” because of my genre and color of skin, those traits written so deep in me that I won’t be able to deal with them or even recognize them?

I feel I can only surrender to these types of arguments, because they are arguments that admit no reply. Should I just submit? Or should I be hypocritically think I’m the exception? The exception to this:

That’s the segment of SFFdom that is generally bewildered by the whole discussion of diversity because Colorblindness™ and I Never Ask What The Gender Of The Writer Is Before I Buy A Book™ even though their personal bookshelves contain 90% white guys.

Yes, I do feel she’s speaking about me. I haven’t checked, but it’s very likely my bookshelf is 90% white guys. I also do claim I don’t care for gender or color of skin when I’m about to look into a book and decide whether to buy it or not. So it’s *me*. I recognize a description of me in those words, and since those words are meant to accuse of an hypocritical stance, then I feel I’m the one being accused of being an hypocrite.

Can I defend myself from that? Tell me what I can do and what I should do. Is there a prescribed reading list so I can begin walking toward the light? Maybe as I white male I can only hope to very partially cleanse my sin, and sins of my fathers? I will always be sullied?

A year or so ago there was some twitter hashtag used to tweet and retween “women in Sci-fi/Fantasy”, with the purpose of showing around those names. Create an awareness to tell potential readers there’s a good but hidden market. Jemisin calls it “the readership’s calls for diversity”. I participated, and it was easy to get 10 names that I thought were good writers people should look into. I still have the list I made (no particular order):
Janny Wurts – Dunnet – Caitlin Kiernan – Jacqueline Carey – JV Jones – Lois McMaster Bujold – N K Jemisin – Kate Elliott – Susanna Clarke – Valente – Robin Hobb – Nnedi Okorafor – Oktavia Butler – Diana Gabaldon – Rasheedah Phillips

The last name specifically is one that isn’t known at all, maybe even Jemisin doesn’t know about her. And it’s something I eventually wanted to bring here on the blog because it’s part of a “movement” called “Black Quantum Futurism” and it’s the very stuff that interests me. A black woman, in the genre, with a political argument, doing stuff that interests me closely. I stumbled on her work because of a very random twitter message from someone I follow, and it lead me to discover something really interesting. This too happened about a year ago.

Same as I did for Jemisin (see the post below where I quoted my forum message), even if I didn’t yet get to read the book(s) to write about at length here on the blog, I did everything I could to show around what I found. To tell people I found something really interesting, at least for me, included with links to Amazon to find the books:

So here’s what I have:
Recurrence Plot
BLACK QUANTUM FUTURISM

Stuff I randomly spotted on Twitter and instantly proceeded to order (it’s cheap anyway). It’s self-publish stuff, I think, but that increases the curiosity of finding something RARE very few people know and potentially great and also different from everything else out there. Entirely new perspectives. Pioneering!

The two are related, the first is a weird tale that almost looks Danielewsky, it should have a sequel in a couple of months, and boldly claims “Time Travel, Theory & Practice”. There are a few weird schemes and pictures inside, the quality is not good (print quality of the images) but I love looking at convoluted diagrams and tangles of plot and mythology. The second one is some kind of fanzine, just 70-80 pages in a small format, it’s basically the “manifesto” that feeds the first book. I’ll paste here a quote so you understand what we’re dealing with:

[…] The troubling reality of being Black in America. The troubling reality of memory and how it plays a role in our daily lives. What do we chose to remember and what are we trying to forget? What memories are forced upon us and what memories are we forced to forget? What effect do they have over our bodies and psyches? The double conscious that DuBois once prophetically spoke of has transformed into a metafractal of limitless shapes and symmetry within the collective conscious of Black people. What are the dimesions of trauma? Does it work like a satellite routing a collective misery (sadness) to a certain locale? Does its energy participate and reemerge in some other space? How does our trauma affect the cosmos?


Black Quantum Futurism (or BQF) is a new approach to living and experiencing reality by way of the manipulation of space-time in order to see into possible futures, and/or collapse space-time into a desired future in order to bring about that futures reality. This vision and practice derives its facets, tenets, and qualities from quantum physics, futurist traditions, and Black/African cultural traditions of consciousness, time, and space. Inside of the space where these three traditions intersect exists a creative plane that allows for the ability of African-descended people to see into, choose, or create the impending future.

BQF is a new experience of time consciousness that binds modern day physics, ancient African time consciousness, and conceptual notions of futurism. Through Black Quantum Futurism we can increase the “knowability” of the future and the past by treating both modes of time as formally equivalent. This practice develops foresight and hindsight by studying features of time, sources of change, rythms and patterns in larger social patterns, as well as patterns in our personal spheres of experience in order to map out our Black Quantum Futures. Time is change, and to see into the future is merely to anticipate what changes will occur, and what patterns will re-occur. BQF Creatives work to consciously subvert the strict chronological hierarchal characteristic of linear time.

One of the pages is titled: Swahili Conception of Time and Space

Here’s an image of the writer, with Africa-shaped earrings. She basically looks coming straight from The Matrix:
http://40.media.tumblr.com/e3cc295a7878d9a75aec6d9712476da9/tumblr_nmyhnnKMSJ1sugf2vo1_500.jpg

So, it’s Time Travel mythology employed as social activism. A delicious post-modern mix. It’s mythology laid on top of this discourse:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Z0N3hsSvs8

Watch the video because it’s great. I still only just browsed through the two books since I just got them, so can’t really say if what’s in there is actually good. But the premises are more than worth the very small price. I feel like I’m hanging out with the cool people (I’m white and feel I don’t belong, but I still feel it’s cool).

And I also absolutely love this blur of practical mythology, crossing over between fiction and reality, and basically reinvent everything. Even when it’s a failure it’s still exceptional.

Do you see the tone I used? I was excited. Do you see I was trying to get people to participate, even if that call fell dead in the water and people shrug it off? There’s no agenda there. I found something that looks very interesting and so I wanted to share it. EVEN BETTER if it happens to be a black woman writing. (an aside: the movie “Chi-Raq” by Spike Lee is a masterpiece, watch it)

No, I don’t go and don’t accept to go out of my way to look *specifically* for something written by a woman of color. That’s something I respect as a choice, but it’s not my choice and if I made it I’d feel hypocritical. I won’t try to balance my reads to find an ideal ratio of male to woman. I follow my interests, if those interests cross a woman of color, even BETTER. I’m glad. But I really don’t want that to drive my choices.

My impression reading different forums, forums with no agenda beside people loving to discuss the stuff they are passionate about, is that Jemisin won because the book was GOOD. This is what I’m reading. I briefly went to Vox Day blog to read what was the narrative being spun over there, and I even chuckled a bit a this specific quote:

The winners were: black woman, black woman, Asian woman, white woman, none of whom are bestselling or even very well-known authors. This is reliably indicative of increasing irrelevance. It won’t be long before simply being a minority won’t be enough and authors will have to be gay, blind, and crippled just to be nominated.

It’s quite a straw man, but there’s a hint of truth in there. But the important aspect is that Vox Day (beside insulting Jemisin, which is plainly inexcusable no matter what) thinks Jemisin is a “token”. It means she won because of what she represents and not for the quality of her work.

But hey, wait. Because this is one of those rare occasions where she MIGHT have been a token but, call it a coincidence, this is one case where that’s simply NOT TRUE. What I see by reading the forums I usually read is that people with no agenda at all read the book and LOVED it. It’s even a first because in many other occasions the book that won the Hugo wasn’t that much of a favorite. There was more of a disconnect between Hugo voters and general public. Jemisin represents EXCEPTIONALITY for the Hugo, which is why I said the win was predictable (I did predict it, after all) but this time at least a good book ACTUALLY won. Because it wasn’t always the case.

So Vox Day’s thesis is *specifically* wrong this time. It’s this year specifically a case that a good novel won and I see readers celebrate it! It’s not something new because a *black woman* won the Hugo main prize this year, it’s new that a GOOD NOVEL WON based on its own merits instead of just the name on the cover, as it’s usually the case (see Gaiman, this year). The Hugo is all about certain circles, there’s no healthy contamination. It’s a bad prize exactly because it’s so self-referential (but all prizes are, and I really hope we could just get rid of all of them, honestly). This year was an EXCEPTION. A good one. If anything, it’s from this point onward that one should be skeptical, because Jemisin now has a name. She’s not anymore the underdog and won’t represent anymore that side. She has contacts, she is well respected. Beware making her into a totem and proof that the problem is now solved.

But what about me? Jemisin accuses me (indirectly). I wonder, are black women misrepresented because the field is male-dominated, so the market is mostly pointed at males and consequently less women are readers (in the genre) and so less likely to also become writers (though things are definitely changing)? Is it a kind of circular process, like a self-fulfilling prophecy? Is it the publisher that draws this line? In the articles about the recent Hugo victory I saw linked another article by some writer discouraging women to write science fiction, I only gave it a cursory glance but the thesis seems to be that women can’t write action. But what if there’s a little bit of truth there if you correct the otherwise silly angle? What if the thing is not so much that women *can’t* write action, but rather that their preferred styles and themes are more likely oriented elsewhere? Maybe there isn’t an absolute “equality”, and women do write differently and bring to the table a different angle. It’s DIVERSITY that we should TREASURE. And maybe denying that diversity won’t do good to the cause. Because we should bring it out as a quality, instead of hiding it (while still also being wary of turning it into a canon or prejudice). It is different? GOOD!

What I know is that it’s hard for me to find women writers, or black writers, or combinations of those, that write the stuff that might interest me. You know them? BRING THEM ON. I want to know all about them. Every reader who loves reading is constantly waiting for more great things, the struggle is to fish them out in the chaotic sea of publishing. If I haven’t bought and read more books written by women is because I wasn’t able to find them. But that also means you CAN accuse me of having narrow tastes. It might be that I’m far more open to a certain type of diversity, and what I read isn’t branching out enough, that’s a more legitimate accusation than telling me I’m a racist. And maybe Jemisin is the exception, in my case, because she IS writing themes that you wouldn’t as easily find in a novel written by a woman. But I also think that the accusation of not reading books that are diverse enough is so generalized that it will be hard to say where to draw the line. We would once again fall into prescribed reading insanity.

A couple of weeks ago I was reading articles about Jerusalem, by Alan Moore. And in one another big tome was mentioned: Ash: A Secret History. I’ve never heard of it and the more I read reviews and forums posts the more I wanted to have the book in my hands. It’s written by a woman, Mary Gentle. I really wonder why this book never crossed my path and I immediately ordered a copy. But then the UK edition that has all the story in one volume is out of print everywhere, and in the end I had to ordered a used copy through Amazon, so the author won’t see any of that money (but I did get the book and it’s in great condition, yay!).

How do I prove that genre and color of skin don’t stop me, but are actually a positive point, even if it will never be a *decisive* point for me? I have my interests, I have an hard time finding women of color that are excellent writers and that write stuff I’m interested about. My library reflects my interests, not my prejudices (and when I was younger I also dabbed in the “chick lit” genre, that certainly wasn’t a market meant for a male presence). And if I can help to rise awareness about certain writers, I try to do what I can. Recently there was a forum post asking for five favorite fantasy series, I listed just four, because they do something different from the norm, and in my personal third place, after Erikson and Bakker, I put Janny Wurts. She’s not just a writer I recommend, or just a female writer, she’s up there with the very best.

But my library is still very likely 90% white guys. I am still observably guilty.

And now I have to write about this too.

Books by N.K. Jemisin have been on my radar for a while, then last summer I read a very good review of The Fifth Season and what it said about the book was so interesting that I pre-ordered the book AND also ordered the omnibus of the previous trilogy. I read the first 30-50 pages of this one and liked it. Then, as it always happen, these go into an evergrowing pile of books to read, but I’ll go there sooner than later (relatively) because I’m really interested to read all of it.

Since then I read Jemisin blog and even hyped the book on twitter and forums because of certain things she wrote, because those certain things are *especially* what writers have to write to grab my attention.

I haven’t read it, but this is the one book coming out this year that is without a doubt MUST READ, my sixth sense says.

Jemisin first trilogy as one omnibus was released a few months ago, and I had it on my wishlist for a while, mostly because I remembered some of Larry “Blog of the fallen” reviews. And I finally bought that a month or so ago. Only read 50 or so pages, but it’s good. Good enough to see a writer that is on the right path with enough talent backing it up. I’m reading it with the awareness “it can only get better, and it will”, as an appetizer, because I know of this new trilogy coming out.

Then I read Neth review about this new trilogy, and especially Jemisin own words. There are a few things that can get my attention and make me click on “buy” button very quickly:


I had a despair moment again while writing The Fifth Season. Convinced myself that it was just too strange, too dark, too hard to write, and no one would ever want to read it. I actually called my editor and discussed whether I could just turn the trilogy into a standalone, wash my hands of the whole thing, and go cry in a corner somewhere.

Still, the Broken Earth trilogy is the, hmm, biggest thing I’ve ever written, and the scope of it is forcing me to do some things I’ve never done before.

It’s about wars that have become background noise and secrets with geologically long histories and how people love when they cannot possibly protect the people they love. I’m just saying that the setting makes phenotypical, sociological, human sense as the characters go about their business. At some point someones going to throw a mountain at someone else, and there’s some talking-statue shenanigans, but there will be motherfucking black people in it. And Asian people, and multiracial people, and queer people, and women who are built like brick houses and Mack trucks, and so on. Because I refuse to ever write a fantasy in which magic is believable but human beings aren’t.

And then I read that a part of the book is written in 2nd person, and for a reason.

So, the point is that a writer that was on my radar for a while kicked up the ambition another lever. I only wait for those kinds of things. Something that has ideas, has ambition, takes risks, goes off the beaten path, exploring. The general themes and scope of the book seem amazing, and the reviews I’ve read confirm it’s successful.

I could still read it and then be disappointed, but I doubt it.

I was then glad to see the book was nominated for the Hugo, a prize that really doesn’t say much to me and that I see as par-for-the-course of a certain establishment. But this time, instead, there was a good book. Because of those excellent premises. Even if I still haven’t personally read it, I’ve spent time reading *about* it, and in my experience that’s already enough to frame a book.

I didn’t even know the Hugo winners were going to be announced yesterday and I only found out when I scrolled my twitter. There were more than a few mentions and, since I’ve been following Jemisin too, there were her retweets as well.

I use twitter a great deal to read, but I sporadically write. This time my message was:

#HugoAward predictable as usual. But at least a good novel won. The Sandman, though, was meaningless drivel, a shadow of the former comics

I was quite sure she was going to win (check the date), for a number of reasons. And if you read comments on the forums you can see no one was really surprised she won. Quite often I can look at the list of nominations and guess who’s going to win, without having read their books. It just happens, the Hugo follows its rules. It’s a fact it’s predictable and you can frequently guess who’s going to win by just reading the nomination list. Is pointing this out controversial?

I wrote that comment on twitter, then tried to retweet the news, and my twitter client told me I couldn’t do that. I click on it and find out it was retweeted by Jemisin and I was now blocked to see her profile.

Within five minutes of having written that throwaway comment above, Jemisin decided to *block* my twitter account.

I mentioned this on the forums too and my post was quickly deleted (which annoys me). But IT IS kind of a big deal, and it’s NOT a personal kind of deal.

For me this is a very good sign of how the whole “Rabid Puppies” deal has produced a toxic community. When you poison the waters that poison spreads everywhere. It’s pervasive and indiscriminate. What happened there? I can only guess but there’s only one possibility, Jemisin saw my twitter message because I used that hashtag, interpreted my “predictable as usual” as an accusation the ballot was piloted (which was NOT my intention), so imagined I was one of the Puppies (and I’m really not, this should be very obvious too), and proceeded to block my account.

So there’s this new culture of SUSPICION that is bred from a community going toxic. I was caught in friendly fire.

It’s not a big deal that she blocked my account. I’m annoyed because I followed her for a reason. I want to read about updates, and not being able to see them on twitter is a problem, even if a small one. But it’s a big deal because it’s a sign of how these movements and counter-movements, of a fanbase taking sides to fight an entirely pointless war, is just the wrong way to deal with the whole thing. It just makes everything worse, for EVERYONE. And even if you happen to fight on the “good” side, this fight still brings the worst out of you.

Are you friend or foe? Show me your banner.

People align themselves to a group, to obtain sympathy, to be accepted, to reinforce a sense of identity, to close ranks. To establish social links. And we keep around ourselves only those like-minded, so that we never have to confront ourselves with a side we consider hostile. This is the automatic pilot of the human being. It sucks.

Congratulations. It seems in the heat of the moment you still had enough time to read my twitter message and block me for no reason at all.

P.S.
Since the blog sends trackbacks and she’s very obviously manually pruning them, it means she didn’t block me as a mistake, but did it deliberately. So I’m just left wondering what I did to earn this hostility.

Update:
I now notice that in the comments to Jemisin blog someone complained about a similar issue. It looks like me, but not me. I actually considered writing a message on her blog but decided it was better not.

Her reply:

I have a series of auto-blockers in place with currently over 100,000 people blocked. That’s been necessary given the amount of Gamergate- and white supremacist-related online harassment I experience. The auto-blockers also screen out people who could potentially be harassers — new accounts, those with fewer than 15 followers, some other factors. Trust me, it wasn’t personal.

If you tell me your Twitter handle, I can unblock you, as long as you don’t look like a Gger or bigot. :)

Though I wonder what ultimate AI the auto-blockers employ since my message above didn’t contain Jemisin name, nor the book title (nor my account is subject to those factors she lists).

I finished reading this after more than A YEAR, but that’s what happens when I read way too many books in parallel, drop them for a few months to pick them up later.

Here I only wanted to comment a particular aspect of how the series got a bit off the rails, accordingly to most(?) fans. For sure something went wrong since Martin didn’t release the following book for many years, and when he did he promised the next would be out within one year… when it didn’t come out for another six. This triggered a lot of discussions about readers’ “entitlement”, but it’s pretty obvious something went wrong regardless of what readers think.

Keeping my own glacial pace I now finished this third book, the one that the fans loved the most. For me the first has been the best book by a good margin, the second one was good but not as good, and when I started reading this third I felt quite underwhelmed. There are very good chapters even in this third book, especially Sansa, Jaime and Tyrion (in this order), but in general I couldn’t understand what in this book was supposed to push it well above the previous two. This continued up to page 700 or so (1100 total in the paperback I read).

There’s not a big convergence in the book, or a single turning point, but I agree the last 400 pages are in a different category. Instead of reaching some overall plot culmination what happens is that every major PoV reaches a turning point in its own self-contained story (there are repercussions from one to the other, but often it happens indirectly). What Martin did was about aligning these story-lines that, even if kept well separated and following their own trajectories, they all reach the highest tension is a rather quick succession. So these last 400 pages are intense because of the speed the plot picks up, because there are so many deaths, and because they are really well organized as a whole, without feeling jammed forcefully. The story has a very different intensity compared to the first half of the book.

But one aspect I noticed is that this is different from simply reaching some culmination of a plot as you would expect. This isn’t merely a good book ending, the function is different, and I think it’s this function that has then created the problems the series has with book 4 & 5. These parallel stories reach their culmination, often with well executed (if a bit trite) plot twists, but in particular to “reposition” all the major characters. I mean it’s not a plot trajectory, it’s about set-up a brand new state. In fact some of these end-of-book set-ups (what comes after the respective plot twists) are even quite bad, bordering fanfiction (because they are a bit too forced and mostly fanservice, see Jon’s “election”).

What happens is completely different from the good finales and plot twists you see at the end of book 1 and 2, that’s what I mean. The first two books have their own satisfying culminations but it was just that. In this case instead book 3 almost wipes the board clean because these major characters all end up in a novel position. It’s no more a journey, it’s a definite new beginning. Less about what is left behind and more about the blank, undiscovered state ahead. The same story continues, of course, but all the premises have been changed, all these characters have been uprooted from their familiar places and roles, and each pushed into a totally new context. Also in the other two books this was the most relevant (and effective) plot mechanic: the balance and familiarity is radically upset. But this time there are less immediate concerns and dangers, it’s not a twist that sends characters directly into action same as every previous book finale was setting up the stage for the next. This time the blank state is dominant across all the story-lines, all of them being expertly juggled to reach this coordination.

What I observed in this third book finale matches what I read about Martin’s original plan. That was about creating a few years gap, after book three, so that the story would continue with characters starting well into their new lives. It seems evident that this is how the ending of book 3 was written. The new set-ups are so radical that the attention of the reader is not on the immediate tomorrow. It’s a starting point meant to eventually build up to a different context, and that was where the fourth book was meant to pick up.

I imagine Martin went on with that plan but, because of what it required, it’s not like he could publish the third book and then start writing the next as he would usually do. He needed to painstakingly track what happened in those “hidden” years between the books. Martin said this himself, he said he figured that the amount of work plotting those years wouldn’t be that different from the amount of work actually showing them in a book. Again, I imagined he tried sticking to his plan, but all the added work to set up the new world must have meant he made little actual progress in the book writing. I imagined that months passed and he grew frustrated and at some point he gave up. He might have felt as if he needed to actually produce those pages that would go into the book itself, rather than just “worldbuilding” the hidden gap. That gap of the plot turned into a necessary gap in the production. Taking too long not being able to resume writing because he was still assembling the pieces needed. He probably got anxious about that and might have felt like he needed something to get back on track.

How do you get back on track? By going back to what you always did. I’m just imagining how things might have gone, it’s just speculation, but I think that after having struggled to write the story between the books he eventually gave up because it required way too much work. He felt the pressure of writing the book itself, and in the end the only immediate solution was to fall back to what he always did. That meant that he had to scrap the jump forward in the story and follow through with the events right after book three.

That’s my interpretation of “what went wrong”. I think that it was Martin’s own self-consciousness about taking too long that paradoxically made things worse. He felt he needed to start writing new pages, but that required building what happened in the gap, so he had to remove the gap to minimize all that work, but that consequently presented its own issues, as the plot would need to be wrestled and adapted to the new plan. The story was not structured this way, and even if some readers think Martin eventually did an excellent job, it’s still likely far from ideal. This type of mid-series re-planning might work if you can go back and adapt the whole thing, but it’s obvious to me that the third book was written for a different goal, and that going in a completely new direction still exacts a not irrelevant toll on the whole.

I imagine it as a self-feeding anxiety that made Martin sacrifice his initial plan to fix the problems he had in writing what came next, but in the end this didn’t actually help because the following two books still took a very long time, and still upset that balance in the original plan.

At first he stuck to the plan following the way, he got anxious because it was taking a too long time, so he decided to take a shortcut, only to realize the shortcut made things even worse. It’s probably the pressure he felt that was the primary cause of the delays.

We, the fans, messed it up. (Indirectly, for the most part, of course.)

Out there there might be an alternative timeline where Martin stuck to the original plan. It is likely that that version has an edge over what we got/will get.

(The removal of the timeline gap was done to deal with the tribulations that came up while writing the fourth book, meant as a solution and a fix, but it also messes up with the way book three itself is written, because book three explicitly builds toward that timeline gap. It requires it. It’s not just what comes after that is upset, but also what comes before.)

THIS IS NOT A REVIEW.

A while ago I read on twitter that this book won the Man Booker International Prize. So, as usual, I check what kind of book it is, what it is about, and the first thing I notice is that it’s REALLY short. 192 pages. Actual wordcount is 51k, meaning 130 pages in a standard format, barely qualifying as a “novel”.

On the Amazon page this book has the longest list of cover blurbs I’ve seen, all singing high praises. What was hinted about the content was also quite intriguing. The idea of metamorphosis seen as an act of rebellion. And besides, this could be a test. A “literary”, prestigious book prize given to a 130 pages book. That means EVERY LINE must be pure literary bliss. If a book is so short and the praises sung so high, then it must be dense and packed with pure awesomeness.

This is not a review because I did not read the whole book. I was only interested in cracking the code. See what it was all about. I started reading the beginning, some 30-40 pages. Then I jumped to the end and read about as much to see where it was going. That legitimated me just to write some snark on the forums: “It has the longest list of cover blurbs in history, I guess that’s because being so short it feels like free money for minimal work.”

I then produced some actual quotes to show what a book that has to be a masterpiece line by line looks like:

“Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.”

“the inferiority complex I used to have about the size of my penis”

“The only respect in which my wife was at all unusual was that she didn’t like wearing a bra.”

“Her voice as it sounded over the phone, always somehow more distinct than in person, never failed to send me into a state of sexual arousal”

“Well, I was in a dream, and I was standing on my head … leaves were growing from my body, and roots were sprouting from my hands … so I dug down into the earth. On and on … I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch so I spread my legs; I spread them wide … ”

“Can only trust my breasts now. I like my breasts, nothing can be killed by them. Hand, foot, tongue, gaze, all weapons from which nothing is safe. But not my breasts. With my round breasts, I’m okay.”

“She was standing, motionless, in front of the fridge. The potential options all filled me with fear.”

It reads like parody to me. The fact it won the prize, and the literary establishment loves it must mean something. I do believe that part of it is BECAUSE the book is so short. There’s something. There’s a “low hanging fruit” paradigm to it, but it turns out it’s not just about size. It’s about titillating some “themes” and a certain sense of identity. It must be serviceable.

That was enough for me, but then weeks later I saw the book being discussed on SomethingAwful forums and I used the occasion to be the voice outside the chorus, deliberately against the grain, criticizing without any subtlety. Because I wanted to actually engage in a discussion with someone who loved and understood the depth, see the opposite angle. At the same time I was also going to observe myself with a critical eye, but without interfering with the “act”. I’d play the antagonizing voice. See if it was all pretense. All a game of taking sides.

I’m not going to comment on these further observations, only mention that I’m aware of all of it.


I skim read it and found the writing dreadful, characterization fake and inch-deep, and actual plot trite and mystified without a single idea that’s worth something.

And the revelation at the end of the book? Are you kidding me?

I’m convinced this book won a prize because it’s so short that they rewarded it because no one wants to work hard anymore. Paid reviewers LOVE this because you can read it in a couple of hours and it feels like FREE MONEY. It’s just a pretense of a book. An imitation of good writing and good plot. And then people love it because they love what some institution tells them to love. The book won a prize, so it must be GREAT.

Mel Mudkiper posted:
If you think The Vegetarian is about mystery and mystification perhaps you should not skim read it and actually read it.

It wants to imitate that dreamlike, introspective and symbolic atmosphere. I only think it’s dreadful for what it achieves. Symbols are powerful because of what they hide. But being the actual deal here inch-deep, it’s all fluff and mystification. Japanese horror B-movies have more creativity and depth.

The title is of course misleading. It’s not about vegetarianism in ANY way, it’s not even technically correct because she starts already as more like “vegan”. But if they titled the book The Vegan then it would have been even more misleading.

So, it’s just about a very subjective mental illness. The book does a poor job with it. The motivations are fluff. It doesn’t play realistically, and the dreamlike effect is lost because the depth just isn’t there, it’s only imitation of what a million of other books do better.

There are reviewers that TRY to lift it up as a kind of metaphor of Korean culture and society. None of them explain how you could reconcile that theory with a story of very subjective mental illness that has absolutely no point of possible generalization.

It’s a sad story written with the purpose to shock, without ever earning it.

Mel Mudkiper posted:
Its a commentary on the nature of how human interaction is always in someway based on consumption and exploitation, and how Korean culture is particularly built around women being consumed for the benefit of men. There is an overwhelming feminist perspective in this book you seem to be completely glazing over.

It’s a disservice to feminism. It’s exploitative. It’s hubris. It’s just a representative act. A show with no actual meaning because, as I said, it’s just imitation of an idea the writer thought would get the attention (as I suspect was the purpose of that title). I only find that manipulative in a bad, unsubtle way. It has an agenda and it’s poorly written. Those you cite as important themes are only gross generalizations. The book is unable to earnestly engage with anything.

What surprises me is that very often you find these big prizes to books that are all form and no content. That happens. But this is a special case where the form itself, the writing line by line, is itself so plain and poor. It’s explicitly bad, it’s not like you need to have a sophisticated literary sense to notice.

And it’s impossible EVEN to engage with the characters on a personal level. The woman not only is mentally ill, but she’s completely unaware of everything around her. So whereas if you were mentally ill you’d notice how people react around you, you’d be self conscious, struggle to blend in and fail (and this could be an interesting and worthwhile story to tell). But this woman doesn’t give a damn. She’s ostensibly weird around people, she makes a deliberate exhibition of it. She’s completely, utterly self-absorbed and without a trace of empathy. She’s essentially not-human, because of how cold she is to everything that surrounds her. But then the book EXPLOITS this by making everyone else around her even more implausibly WORSE. So you’d expect the “sane” people to act differently, but nope. Her husband is a piece of shit who has even less empathy and not a single redeeming quality.

That’s exploitative. It’s a carefully picked selection of the worst human beings with the sole purpose to put the protagonist under an excess of negativity, just to justify what happens to her “internally”.

But I don’t want to offend anyone tastes. I explained the motivations why I think this is dreadful. It’s not just a generalization on my part for a book “I didn’t like”. That’s a subjective, legitimate reaction. But I do think this book is objectively terrible. Those are some of the reasons, so you can make your own mind.

I’m not going to try to persuade people that this book is bad. If you like it, all the better.

P.S.
“consumption and exploitation of women for the benefit of men” as a KOREAN culture thing? REALLY?! More like an universal human thing in the last thousands of years. So she played a game on the “metaphor”, consumption = eating. “I don’t like consumption of women, so I stop eating.” Whoa! Booker Prize! This is exactly what I mean with “inch-deep”.

Mel Mudkiper posted:
because the idealized Korean woman is one who is subdued and complicit in her own abuse.

Yes, I agree with that.

how she was “ideal” to her husband in her total passivity

Yep, the husband being a blatantly piece of shit, and the protagonist made into a convenient symbol. That’s what I call exploitative. The characters are just embodied concepts without any realism and respect.

how a single act of generally meaningless rebellion becomes catastrophic.

But it wasn’t *meaningless* rebellion. It’s self-inflicted pain. That’s why the title is ridiculous. It’s not like she decided to eat “healthily” and started to do something in a different way. The catastrophe is self-inflicted with minimal impact about what happens around herself. It’s more like “doom” and destiny than cause-consequence. Is suicide “meaningless rebellion”?

She’s essentially into self-harm. Being “vegetarian” is utterly misleading unless there’s really someone out there who consider being vegetarian as an act of self-harm. Is self-harm an act of rebellion? I guess it is when recovery is entirely out of the picture. And of course it’s catastrophic, the concept starts that way regardless of what’s around her. She’s trying to kill herself, but of course people around her are so bad that certainly they don’t help.

It’s a legitimately sad story used in an illegitimate exploitative way.

The total point of her passivity is to show the willingness of men to use women for themselves. If she was a more engaged character, not only would the only intellectual base of the plot dissolve, but she would not even be an effective reflection of societal expectations on women.

I still consider this exploitative, convenient (for the book theme) and quite useless as an insightful and meaningful description of society.

And it’s just a tragedy set in motion and described (and made into universal symbol), then you might as well read in a newspaper and don’t need the transformative art of fiction and a novel to do that.

a focused meditation on the predatory nature of human relationships.

On one side I considered those relationships utterly implausible, so neither the relationships nor the characters can work for me that way. It’s a twisted, convenient representation, to my eyes.

Yep, I don’t think human relationships work that way, given this context of the story. Even if you take that, it’s superficial. I don’t know how to better say it than repeating endlessly it’s exploitative.

I do see what you mean, and you do see what I mean. The difference is the angle the writer forced on the story is utterly dishonest and artificial to me, so why it turns into that story into the one I described. She wants those themes, but because the characters are so artificial it all falls apart. We interpret things differently because that angle rings false for me.

You buy into that concept and its use, I don’t.

Mel Mudkiper posted:
I don’t see how the characters are implausible to you. In a patriarchal society aren’t men given the expectation that their worth can be measured by the woman they claim? In that same society aren’t fathers measured by the suitability of their daughters? Aren’t mothers measured by their dedication to their children? Aren’t wives measured by their submission to their husbands?

Plenty of marriages have ended because they became socially inconvenient for one of the partners. Plenty of men have cheated on their wives while sexually and emotionally exploiting their mistresses. Does this make these people monstrous? Probably. Does it make them implausibly monstrous? Not at all.

Yeah, let’s hammer themes into things. You certainly don’t want to use a tiny brush.

So yes, I see those things. I don’t see the hammer as the best tool to represent them.

What particularly about the husband or the brother-in-law comes off as inauthentic to you?

The brother-in-law I can’t comment because I skipped that almost entirely. The rest, also because this book is so thin, events proceed like following this one directional convenient thread. So there’s no depth also because there’s no space. The husband isn’t even in a “relationship”, they are just there as strangers because the writer put them there. Very good writers in so little space would give at least the illusion of a relationship. She doesn’t manage that.

But hey, this husband is so perceptive that he always thought his wife was alright before “turning vegetarian”. The premise already falls apart.

#####
That was the forum conversation. I didn’t want to derail it further.

One aspect I did not comment, not knowing if it was allowed or not to openly discuss the ending, is what I took as the final “revelation”. And it’s something that I see in light of other comments down that forum thread:

Being vegetarian can often be viewed as a rejection of a patriachal society.

My reaction -> “?!”

On one side you have the personal story of this woman and how the people around her react to her metamorphosis (however you interpret it), on the other is the leap of faith of pinning this scene to its universal dimension: “a challenging vision of patriarchy”, “some really complex ideas around feminism”, ” the predatory nature of male and female relations”.

The final revelation of the book is that the woman was abused by her father when she was a kid. This is where it really falls apart for me. It’s a sad book and a sad story and that’s all of it. I cannot read any universal dimension into it because I see the cause so horribly specific. It’s a pure, specific act of violence. That’s something I hinted in my comments above. Writing a novel is a process of transformation and of creation. It’s not just a report. Especially a book that takes that dreamlike angle and wants to elevate it, it needs to feed the metaphor ALIVE. Not kill it. Run with it, not stop it dead.

For me this story has no redeeming quality. I interpret it differently. That poor woman was caged, but not by society outside herself, or horrible people around her. She starts with her cage, feeds it, makes it stronger. If left alone she’d have withered anyway. She is a woman who needs help and she isn’t in any way autonomous to fight her battle about institutions that demand her to behave differently. She hurts herself, first and foremost, even if left alone. Even if her “strange behavior” had been respected. All due to the fact she’s a victim of abuse and can’t see a light out of it. How do you respond to this?

A woman that is seen as broken when autonomous. Because that’s how I take the message of the book: she’s a victim of herself. She can’t function, not as a function of a bigger system, but for herself. Her act of rebellion is against herself. An inability to find herself, recover an identity, tear apart the instrumentality to put together again the broken pieces. Reemerge as a woman instead of a tool and symbol. People around her try to help, but because they are horrible people they only manage to give her another shove. It’s a story of failure where the protagonist is not responsible of that failure, but can only see it passively to its end. Powerless. So is this feminism, really? The fetishization of a broken woman in order to exculpate and cleanse a certain literary establishment that sees itself as better than its peers and so able to separate itself from this harsh judgement?

Fake tears shed for a character turned into a convenient tool.

That a character can be exploited in such a way to turn it into some mythical symbol wielded as a nonspecific protest against society is something that has RITUAL vibes. It’s a human sacrifice. A woman had to be tortured and killed so that we grow more complacent and nothing changes.

The fact that this book KILLS its character to exploit it, a woman with no agency beside hurting herself, actualizes and perpetuates its own crime. It’s not “feminism”, it’s a ghoulish parody the same as Fifty Shades of Grey parodies kinky romance.

(and, what the fuck, Erikson’s Mhybe. Yeah. A woman everyone sees as a tool, shoved down an unavoidable path. A broken woman creates a WORLD. That’s writing as a transformative act.)

I have Fall of Light and will start very soon, I’m now back reading the final part of The Bonehunters, as well the last 300 pages of A Dance with Dragons. It makes for a nice and interesting contrast.

These last few days there has been at least a little noise about R. Scott Bakker. The new book is imminent (July) (actually only the first half of the first book, something that makes me very upset) but the first reviews are coming out as well as sample chapters that, in Bakker’s case, are always enough for plenty of discussion and speculations.

But my attention was caught by a specific aspect that I consider very interesting. What’s the “EAMD bullshit”? Here’s a quote:

Ever Are Men Deceived. It’s shorthand for the psychobabble that Bakker tends to get into in the middle of, like, random sentences. The crossed-out part above is an example. You have a woman running around desperately trying to find her young son in the middle of her enemy storming the gates and a full-blown riot. So…naturally she reflects on how prior knowledge influences actions and guides the course of events

This is the pertinent quote he gives (the italics are not Bakker’s):

Our knowledge commands us, though our conceit claims otherwise. It drives our decisions and so harnesses our deeds—as surely as any cane or lash. She knew well the grievous fate of little princes in times of revolt and overthrow. The fact that her husband’s Empire crashed down about her was but one more goad to find her son.

And here’s how he comments it:

Esmenet’s chapter would be amazing if he could just stop talking about the EAMD bullshit every other sentence. She’s panicking, she’s crying, and then she’d thinking that ya know, everyone is controlled by what came before and the history of their world and blah blah blah.

Seriously, edit that shit out. The first paragraph here is totally unneeded, at least the two sentences. It robs the story of the drama and panic that Esme has in the moment. She’s a parent. She’s not thinking about how knowledge command us. She’s thinking that in sieges and revolts princes die.

That’s it. That’s her motivation. We don’t need more than that. We don’t need to jump from point to point. Just that mantra – in sieges and revolts princes die.

Well, there’s indeed a noticeable slip into third person. That’s why it would be interesting to discuss it with the writers themselves, not even just Bakker.

These days we are used, especially in fantasy, to this “third person limited” perspective, and it happens that when some structure is universally used it becomes canon. People get used to the canon and if you suddenly don’t respect it then you’re doing something wrong, or giving a feeling of wrongness to the reader. In this case I wonder, is that simply a slip, a stylistic quirk or vice, or a *deliberate* slip?

I use to think at this third person limited point of view as a bird that alights on the shoulder of a character and speaks for him. But sometimes it’s the bird talking, you just don’t notice. Or the bird can alight from that shoulder and land somewhere else. A meta-structure. Self-awareness? Erikson in the eighth Malazan book uses Kruppe, a character in the book, as a framing device. Commentary. It’s one further loop of that voice, another lens that bends the light of the story.

As a reader, the more you play with this, the more you have my attention. Writing about writing. It’s not a slip, a mistake, it’s grasping the structure itself.

David Foster Wallace in a short story titled “Mister Squishy”, part of the “Oblivion” collection, has a sudden shift, mid-sentence, in the middle of the story, from third person to first. It’s one of the biggest chills I ever got while reading a story. Only then you realize the story was always told in first person. Of course that’s deliberate, if a bit gimmicky. It’s part of the experimentation, playing with the rules to obtain an effect. Or just put the reader off balance by failing to conform to certain expectations. It’s a sense of vertigo, and it can be very powerful.

It might be asking Bakker too much to actually play even more explicitly and deliberately with structure, and drag the point of view breaks even more as a plot point. It still might be just a slip, or simply a measured consideration, where the effect and the message were considered more important than submitting to a rigorous structure.

Martin is absolute king, in my reading experience, of dealing with this third person limited. Better than everyone else by far. There are still “slips”, for example in descriptions, but they are always “transparent” for the reader, so you can never catch the bird talking, it’s always the character. Martin never actually slips, never wanders off.

Bakker might be seen as having this voice driving a point, using characters as metaphors. Erikson? I’m not even sure and I’ll observe with more attention. Erikson deliberately breaks structure even if usually sticks to third person limited as the norm. I remember at least one case where in a single scene the bird jumps shoulders. Maybe Erikson just doesn’t give much authority to the rule of the structure and, if the story is better serviced that way, he makes exceptions without hesitation.

“Stop the EAMD bullshit” is a mantra that works perfectly well for Erikson too, after all. That’s what I often read in forums (“I wanted to see more action. If I wanted unlikely philosophical conversations I would read Dostoevsky.”). Yet that’s why I read these books. Because they just don’t repeat and conform to the rest of the genre. Wouldn’t it just be more carefully hidden and unaddressed sleight of hands? I want those voices. I treasure that self-awareness, those layers of commentary that bend the angle, that disrupt the natural flow. Sometimes you have to break this habit of just slipping into stories, of immersion. Sometime breaking the immersion you very carefully built might even be the point. Show a deceit, seize that structure. But, of course, the higher you aim, the higher the risk. You might even slip and it makes for a clumsy fall. Part of the deal? Accept it.

I’m considering what to do next, with the blog here.

Reading progress stalled again because I’m more than 500 pages into “IT”, by Stephen King (yay, another sidetrack!). This was unplanned and I read the book when I was in my teen (half of it, then I didn’t resist and ended up watching the TV show, and so even the book progress ended there). But I found the book so amazingly good that now I’ll have to keep going till the end, this time.

But between today and tomorrow “Fall of Light” will ship. Probably one or two weeks to arrive because I didn’t order it from local Amazon. I’m not caught up with Malazan (currently reading the last part of book 6) but I’m up to date with this actual pre-series, so I’m going to read it as I receive it.

I’m writing this down in the hope it will make me do it. The thing is, I expect Fall of Light to be VERY good (Forge of Darkness was, for me), but I have this thing that makes me delay indefinitely the stuff I know is good. The bigger the expectations, the more I’m reluctant to have that experience and exhaust it. Instead if I keep it ahead of me it keeps shining, and I don’t won’t to be over with it. It’s a mental thing, one of those compulsive illogical behaviors that keep winning. And that’s also why I keep getting sidetracked reading something else rather than finishing Malazan, it’s just that I don’t want to exhaust that experience, I want to have it ahead of me instead of behind me.

Of course I also enjoy having read a great book. It’s just an illusion that the experience is exhausted, so I keep fighting the compulsive behavior even if it ends up winning a lot of times.

By the time Fall of Light lands here I’ll probably be done with IT, but not with The Bonehunters. So I’ll read both books at the same time anyway. It’s likely I’ll go slow (though the desire to go slow with Fall of Light might make me read faster and finish quickly The Bonehunters as a side-effect), so I think I’ll write some things as I read instead of waiting to finish the book, as long I actually have something to say.

Still lots of Erikson stuff beside the main series. A new novella came out that I’ll get next month, but I still have to read the previous one (I’ve read the other four, though). Then there’s the story collection “The Devil Delivered” that I expect being also excellent and I already have, as well as “Willful Child” that I also own but that has me very skeptical. And then there’s Esslemont’s “Dancer’s Lament” that doesn’t have to wait the main series either, but that I’ll probably only read after the first of Esslemont’s more recent books, so “Return of the Crimson Guard”. Or maybe before.

Beside the Malazan stuff I want to go fairly quickly through Bakker’s series, as well continue with Janny Wurts and Glen Cook’s Instrumentalities. So all these are priorities. The TBR complete pile is way, way bigger with a crazy number of other SERIES in it (from Dune, to Donaldson’s Gap + Covenant, to Neal Stephenson, to Wolfe, Dorothy Dunnett, and more and more, to the more ‘easy’ stuff that goes from Martin to Abercrombie and Sanderson, I’m happy forever).

Just a passing mention while I keep getting distracted by everything else.

Here’s a link to some sort of blog article by New York Times Bestselling author Jessica Clare, of “The Succubus Diaries”. She explains why you should write short books:
http://jillmyles.com/2009/06/09/a-rant-on-word-count/

Bloated word count costs your publisher money. I’m sorry, but there it is. You can fit three fat books on a shelf where six slimmer ones might fit. You get paid the same for both. Would you rather sell three or six? Would you rather B&N or Borders order 3 copies of your book or six? What about Wal-Mart?

So, after having dutifully pointed you to the sane life advices, let’s indulge with the more satisfying blowing up of approved literary behaviors. I was saying, I’m constantly sidetracked, so that’s why reading progress never progresses. I did manage to finish the 550k mammoth of “Parallel Stories” (some quick comments here). That was a while ago. Two recent interesting book purchases have been these two:

The Runaway Soul by Harold Brodkey
The Complete Novels by Flann O’Brien

The first one is interesting because, as you notice, it’s not even in print since it was such a smashing success, so I got an used copy for a low price (and almost pristine hardcover, very nice). It took the writer 32 years to write that ambitious scaffolding of a book, and that’s after becoming a big name praised by the likes of Harold Bloom. The relatively lean wikipedia entry is quite enough to unearth paradox and contradiction: “the one necessary American narrative work of this century” – “If he’s ever able to solve his publishing problems, he’ll be seen as one of the great writers of his day.” The genesis of the book also shows the level of hype: “The work became something of an object of desire for editors; it was moved among publishing houses for what were rumored to be ever-increasing advances, advertised as a forthcoming title (Party of Animals) in book catalogs, expanded and ceaselessly revised, until its publication seemed an event longer awaited than anything without theological implications. In 1983 the Saturday Review referred to “A Party of Animals” as “now reportedly comprising 4,000 pages and announced as forthcoming ‘next year’ every year since 1973.”

I like boundless, unreasonable ambition. I like to observe even when it goes hand to hand with failure. There are various levels, from Ed Wood to, apparently, Harold Brodkey.

This is mythology in the making. Mythology of a writer as an abstract entity. The Paris Review interview with the author is a sarcasm-filled article that I found interesting from the beginning to the end. The interview is so candidly naive and makes you understand (?) the ennui and weariness of the pampered life as a bourgeois writer. Such an hard, heroic life. It’s so bursting with narcissism that you can easily go from contempt to pity. But beside that, there’s also plenty of actual good stuff. Actual work. Detached from the real world, but nonetheless with its own, aloft value. I was more and more curious about reading the this book, more and more curious about reading what he actually had to say.

When New York magazine came out with my picture on the cover a couple of years ago, I would be walking down the street and people would pass me, and then I would see the same people again, a minute later; they’d circled around to see the cover in life. And I would think, What do I do? Should I smile? Do I really like this? What’s the etiquette here? I think I did like it, but I’m not sure.

There’s a Yiddish word, yenta, for the sort of person who nags you all the time. Frank O’Hara was a yenta. I wasn’t someone he publicized, but twice a year he would confront me and tell me that I was a great writer, a great artist, a great thinker, whatever, and that I was just hiding. And he would say that this was despicable. He would say that the work was fantastic, that it had influenced him, but unfortunately (he would say), I was a middle-class drag, not serious about becoming famous and influencing the world. William Maxwell said many of the same things to me. I practiced evasion until I was forty.

Of being an honest, wholehearted, fame-spurred writer. A sucker. A writer—and eaten up by it. Then, when I was forty, I gave up. I stopped being evasive. I clumsily wanted to be known. An eaten man. I think—and I have some evidence from when I was a teacher—that most people who try to write can succeed but don’t want to; I would argue that psychologically they would rather daydream about creating texts and being recognized while having real lives—they would rather do that than publish, I think.

I got this idea of being a writer someday. Then life, despair, became things I could study, like arithmetic or geometry, or Time magazine. It wasn’t that everything was okay, but that they became handleable in a certain sense.

Because of the peculiar circumstances of my life I had to find a way to get along with my conscious mind, or I really couldn’t exist, and one way to do that was to start thinking about my life as a story, or something to be interpreted or examined. I didn’t think I was going to write about my childhood, but I thought I would write about something that would make things that were obscure to me clear . . . by setting up one of those tremendous structures of suspense in fiction.

It may be the realest and trickiest and most violent thing you can do—to be published. The “silly Charybdis”—a childhood joke—of the insoluble thing of the choice proposed: to live or to publish.

At first one has two lives. One is the literary life in New York, The New Yorker, people who’ve read what you’ve written; and the other is the life you have with your old friends. In those days I was more athletic than I am now; I’d go and play tennis, or go canoeing with old friends . . . but after a while they don’t trust you. At the job I had, the people there didn’t trust me. They’d say, You’re going to write about it, you’re going to write about it. I’m not going to write about it—but no one believes you. Then they think, “Is he laughing at me?” And suddenly you’re more at home with strangers, with other writers, than with the people you’ve been at home with for years.

There were maybe four or five years of the double life of being a writer and still being a person. Then by, say, 1957, before First Love came out, I was really fed up. Between the two I really thought I’d rather be a person than a writer. Starting in 1959 I began the slow retreat into reclusiveness.

Instead I did it my way, which didn’t work, and by the time it was apparent it didn’t work I was exhausted and frightened, seriously frightened by what I had found out about myself as a writer . . . the ways my writing will and won’t meet me halfway. The ways I have to behave or the writing will stay dead.

There are about nine hundred million aphorisms about writing that are true, and one of them comes from Bill Maxwell—all short stories should be written in a sitting. As I understood it, that meant that you could spend weeks, months, years writing drafts, outlines, notes, sections, but sooner or later you ought to take all that and sit down and write a draft in a sitting, in a single flight—which might take days or weeks but without interruptions—so that the broad elements and the nuances cohere, certain echoes, certain resonances fit together, and there is real motion in the narrative—not a false motion linguistically grafted onto the story. Words have a strangely changeable, contingent kind of meaning, and as T. S. Eliot said in one of his famous essays, the music of language carries more of the realer meaning than the literal meaning of words does. A shift in the mind, in the mood, and you lose control of that music. Often, in a text you can see the fracture points where the music was lost and then regained or not. If not, the piece stays flat. A final draft has always been a little bit like a dramatic performance, but a performance that can sometimes last for several days with very little sleep; what sleep there is is troubled. The longest single sitting I can remember lasted for six days. I had to have Ellen stand by the desk from time to time I was so mixed up as to where I was, what was real. She would tell me what time of day it was; her voice was how I located myself.

Or you find a sentence, and there’s something good in it, but it’s mostly a lie as it stands; if you’ve been really corrupted you go with the lie for the sake of the part that’s okay; but if you’re lucky and obstinate about protecting your virtue as a writer, then you can try to correct the sentence, refine it, rescue the truer part, replace the crap. But it’s very nervous work.

the cruelest to bear is the beginning, the confrontation with the blank sheet of paper, where you have the chance to get up and turn your back on being a writer. You think, “I’ll quit, I’ll live a real life as a citizen; I’ll belong to the PTA and love my children. And have a country house.”

I don’t know that I can deal with publication. In this country, to be published, to become a figure—a Mailer, a Styron, a Roth—is really not worth it. They give far more than they get.

I’m bad at it, and that seems to attract interest. People seem to like to watch me falling on my face. I don’t know how to deal with it.

I worry still: Is what I do useful? Is it morally worthwhile? Is it of profit to the culture that I do it? And, selfishly, I wonder if this is the way I want to spent my life. Do I want to write the way I do? Yes and no. I’ve come to terms with it. I don’t ever remember a time when I couldn’t write fairly well.

I don’t know anybody else in my generation who’s been so constrained by considerations of getting published as I’ve been.

Oh God. Publishing is a miserable procedure. Most of the reviewers are probably okay but a number of them aren’t okay. I mean they don’t write or think very well. And the politics, the politics of doing favors, and of being favored are hard to handle

I met Joyce Carol Oates at a book party. She said that she really envied me my silence, my not having been commented on as much as she had been. I mean, she brings out about two books a year, so she probably gets reviewed by, what, thirty-five, fifty, a hundred reviewers? Maybe she only glances at around three or four, but just seeing the headlines, just seeing all those voices, opinions. And then there are all those other opinions that do matter to her. She said she was jealous of my not having my head filled with others’ comments, voices, opinions.

Even before Ashbery switched to Stevens there was in his writing this evasiveness, this sense that God was dead and meaning was impossible to come by

I think there’s an inside and an outside to a sentence, and to a sequence of sentences. The inside is what you think, what you think you’re saying; the outside is what somebody else thinks you’re saying, and about you saying it. Editors and critics always feel they possess the inside—I don’t know why.

You imagine the space, and then create the voice to fill it.

But this novel becoming a legendary literary failure isn’t the whole picture, because, as the tide turns, it seems Brodkey managed to trigger only contempt to a level that makes you wonder if it isn’t a tad too much even for literary criticism… When he contracted AIDS the illness was the only thing he could write about, but even in the face of stark death he didn’t earn any compassion from the same literary establishment that praised and pampered him all his life: “a matter of manipulative hucksterism, of mendacious self-propaganda and cruel assertion of artistic privilege, whereby death is made a matter of public relations.”

Notice that I found out about Harold Brodkey because I was reading an interview with Peter Nadas, instead.

the ones usually referred to in this context are Henry Miller or Harold Brodkey, where there is no pornography and no kitsch. What Miller is most interested in is what happens physically between two people, while Brodkey is intrigued by how you can transform making love into a deeply religious and benign act, how, if at all, you can give pleasure to a tremendously beautiful girl who happens to be incapable of enjoyment. As such a story was written by an American, of course he finds out that you can.

And Peter Nadas own vagaries are equally aloft and interesting:

I could not close giving the impression that I was completely clear about the meaning of things. Maybe there is no such meaning. I am clear about the meaning of some things, and—I’m sorry, but I refuse to deny, in pure modesty—there are things I know a lot about. But in other cases I may be completely in the dark about the meaning. I don’t believe there are complete philosophical systems that have decided for me whether or not the world is accessible to our understanding—whether understanding is a process or a divine gift that we can receive ready-made, and all we have to do is go to church every Sunday morning or every Friday evening. So the novel could end only with that special state that is neither sad nor desperate, neither absurd nor realistic, the state you’re in—it’s actually lovely in its own way—when you’re not clear about the meaning of things and you’re completely lost as to the ultimate meaning of things. Which is to say, man is not a completed being.

The prose floats from scene to scene, often returning to an earlier situation but from a different perspective, gradually something else occurs. Associations are made. Narratives are linked.

The phone in an apartment begins ringing on page 35, but isn’t picked up until page 59… and it has rung only about ten times.

“Literary experimention” brought me to look up the other one, Flann O’Brien, that has the name hints, is a flamboyant writer that I’ve never heard about but that apparently is one of the very Big Names. I’ve only read 20-30 pages and I still have no idea about what I’m reading, but for now it fits in the same mental drawer of Vonnegut.

…But. September is a great month, and all you see above was not what I wanted to write about, because my purpose was instead to point at two books, coming out, guess what, next September!

And now maybe you see the link? Because these two upcoming books are ALSO literary impossibilities. Negative spaces of literature where failure (of communication) meets ambition.

The first, more mainstream book is, finally, “Jerusalem” by Alan Moore. Hyped as a 1 million word book, it turns out it’s a bit more moderate:

“I was determined not to have a publishing house editor near this book”

“Not like Lord of the Rings, it’s not a trilogy, it’s one book of enormous length.”

“The one I’m doing at the moment is based upon Lucia Joyce, James Joyce’s daughter, who spent the last 30 years of her life in St Andrews Hospital, the mental institution next door to the school I used to attend. I’ve got this story about Lucia wandering through the madhouse grounds. She’s also coming unstuck in space and time a little bit. She’s wandering in her own mind. I decided to write this in an approximation of her Dad’s language.”

“We’re suddenly following a gang of dead children as they tunnel about through time in a kind of fourth-dimensional afterlife”

“It’s been reported that it’s more than a million words, which it isn’t. I think my daughter Leah, who was touchingly proud when I told her that I’d finished the first draft, must have thought that I’d said it was a million, but no, it’s a pathetic 615,000. So it’s little more than a pamphlet, really.”

The second is just the physical manifestation of literary excess. Firstly in price: $70. And secondly in size: 1496 pages. But that pagecount might not even say the whole story, as this is an old book, released 46 years ago, and the pictures I’ve seen of the original German edition show something truly HUGE even in format, and with a page layout that can challenge Danielewski. The fact it’s been translated in English (and that it exists as a thing) is science fiction.

And here’s how it looked in manuscript form:

Zettel’s Bottom (and if you glance at the publisher, you can easily make the connection that shows how I found it, from Flann O’Brien to this).

Give it to me right now.

But if you think this is all too literary aloft I also have to confess I’ve ordered yesterday two other books. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, after having spent a few hours on youtube watching interviews (1, 2 and bewildering enthusiastic review by intended audience), and Illuminae, that for some reason came ahead in my wishlist of Danielewski own literary excess: The Familiar series. I already have the first volume, even if it’s still in TBR pile, and it’s the second one I’ll have to order at some point, but for now Illuminae won my curiosity first, and I don’t need to write more about it since that book is already all over the place and praised in its intended circles.