Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Stories Misbehaving, or some thoughts on "Once Upon a Time"

Some thoughts on “Once Upon a Time”

So I was really excited. No. I mean, REALLY, really excited. TWO shows (Grimm on NBC and Once Upon a Time on ABC) debuting this fall, that promised to make fairy tales the core of their storytelling. I’ve since given up on Grimm. It has some really major story problems (not to mention the fact that there are literally No Women, unless they are tied up in a basement. Seriously, NBC? Why can’t his fiancĂ©e be an ally? You can’t just say “She’s a Doctor! There ya go gals.”) It seems almost like NBC is concerned that its core audience is Too Cool For Fantasy (“Don’t worry guys! See? It’s just a cop show! Nothing to worry about!”) so its ripped the story’s teeth out.

So I was maybe a little more happy than I would have normally been with the pilot of “Once Upon a Time”. Colorful, wild and look! Girls! Women! Kind of… being people. Amazing. But then the Disney Movie references.  Then, Jennifer Morrison’s performance which is lackluster to say the least. Then, something about the story was just…wrong. Kat Howard did a great review of both these shows here and here (She likes Grimm more than I do), but something she said in her Once review resonated with why the show wasn’t resonating with me.

I think that, if I were someone who hadn’t thought about fairy tales since I had read them as a kid or seen the last Disney movie, that I would love Once Upon a Time. But as someone who has steeped myself in them, there’s nothing new for me here.”

And this was my problem as well. There was nothing new, nothing…interesting about the retellings. Like Howard, I have steeped myself in fairy tales my entire life. I have reveled in terrific retellings, including many Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow anthologies, and right now I’m reading Margo Lanagan’s “Tender Morsels” and opiate dream of Snow White and Rose Red. So I was disappointed, and let the last four episodes languish on the DVR.

Then, reading Theodora Goss’s blog post On Enchantment she reminded me that what really attracts me to these kinds of stories is the sense of wonder, the wondrous. And I was having a bad writing day, and didn’t have to be at the Athenaeum until 3, and so I released the episodes from their languishment in the DVR and watched them. And what I realized was this:

Once I stopped being irritated that It Wasn’t What I Wanted, once I stopped being pissed off at the thing for Not Behaving As I Wanted It To, I just watched it. For what it is. And no, it’s not a brilliant retelling of a fairy tale. But it’s a compelling drama, with fantastical elements that play to my love of the wondrous, the enchanted. I *like* that Jiminy Cricket is the Child Psychologist. I *like* that it shows we are not always the people we would like to be. I especially like what they’re doing with Rumpelstiltskin. And couldn’t help but relate those storylines with my own. (“I’m sorry Sallie Mae. I should NOT have told the King I could spin straw into gold, it’s true. But don’t you think my firstborn child is a BIT much?”)

So it was good to be reminded, that just because a piece of work (book, movie, television show) isn’t what I wanted it to be, doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy it. Sometimes, we just have to let it BE what it IS, and enjoy THAT, not the misplaced fantasy of what we WISHED it would be.

Friday, August 26, 2011


Well, readers, the week did seem to get away from me, so the blog post I have in mind is barely even started. But in the interest of Friday Fun (and because I promised myself that I would post weekly) I'm giving you the video below:

It's a little like Sarah Ruhl's "In the Next Room: or the Vibrator Play". Except with the possiblity of fewer story problems. (As in, it actually may have one).

Have a great weekend and stay out of the path of Irene!

Friday, August 19, 2011


DISCLAIMER: These are certainly not the only reason, and I am certainly aware that this is not news to anyone. It’s just something I’m thinking about.

Firstly, I love an underdog

Romance and SF/F literature are some of the most widely read and widely criticized kind of books around.

And I love sticking up for them (both of them actually, but I read more SF/F, so that’s what I’m talking about today.)

If you only knew how often I have seen perfectly good grown-up SF/F books put in the Young Adult Section. And I’m not talking about books that *might* be seen both ways, like Terry Pratchett. I mean “Anansi Boys”.

 Because of course Grown Ups couldn’t possibly be interested in that. Smart adults don’t read Heinlein. Or Scalzi. Or anything with elves or broadswords. No, no. Intelligent adults read … well, Intelligent Adult Books. Which, in my experience consist largely of People Having Problems, Getting Divorced and Being Sad, and sitting at the Thanksgiving Table Not Telling Their Dad How They REALLY Feel. For 300+ pages these people do this. They wear blue jeans and drive cars and talk on cell phones and look for parking. These are all things I can see every day looking out the window of the bus. Not what I want to see when I’m reading.

I need not Not Be Here when I read. I want to NOT see my own fat ass handed back to me in a mirror. I want to see something else, something Other. This is how I connect to the world.

This is why Genre Matters. It matters because

 Another reason why I love it – and this one is personal – is that I’m not supposed to. Not as someone with an MFA in Fiction Writing and Literature.  Not someone who was brought up as a writer in the Culture of Workshop. I remember, with great shame, how twenty years ago I was really nice about the guy who brought in a chapter of his epic fantasy novel to workshop. I know of several Creative Writing Professors who say in their syllabus that they will accept “No genre fiction of any kind” to their workshop. This is powerful hoodoo to overcome. So the under-the-covers-with-a-flashlight aspect of SF/F novels lasted longer than it should have.

So my love for it is tinged in the relief I feel at being able to let it loose, after holding my breath about it for so long. It is the love of the long-term convent girl for clove cigarettes and rock and roll. This may account for my occasional bouts of Evangelicism. I’m sure Gentle Reader will forgive.

But what matters, especially about SF/F, is this: I truly believe that a story set in a built world can say more about our own world than a Realistic Story.

 There’s this thing I always remembered from a Film Studies Class about black and white movies. You see, in a color movie, you see someone having a drink at the bar and your mind registers: Scotch. Vodka. You see the color. You identify the drink, whether consciously or not. The drink the character is holding becomes a specific drink (Gin and tonic, whiskey sour, Appletini), all of which have specific connotations (especially the Appletini). But when characters in a black and white movie have a drink at the bar, because it can never get specific, it remains forever a kind of “Ideal Cocktail” with all those Platonic Connotations, instead of the specific ones.

Stay with me.

If I read a contemporary novel that addresses, say the problems of intimacy and commitment between men and women, it’s very…specific. We see them have problems, and we those problems resolved, or left unresolved depending on what kind of novel we’re reading. On the other hand, we have Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth Series, and the Plight of the Confessors. In this world, Confessors – women charged with keeping law and justice, who can at will, and with physical touch, turn you into their slave – are doomed never to marry, as their sexual encounters cause the men in question to be “Confessed” or turned into a mindless slave. I can’t remember when I’ve seen a more pointed example of problems of intimacy and connection between genders. I’ll quote my (long suffering) Husband on this one. “Yup! That’s it. That’s what we’re really afraid of. That one night in the sack with the right girl? We lose fucking minds.”

This matters.

This only happens in Fantasy, in built worlds. Okay, maybe not only in Fantasy, but it sure is efficient. And elegant.   And it is genre fiction, the fantasy and the horror and the worlds beyond the all-too-often dreadful one that I inhabit every day that calls to the Monster in me.

Jonathan Franzen does not call to the outsider in me. (Yes the suburbs are a nightmare. Sorry your life is a disappointment.  Can you please grow some wings or pick up a battleaxe or turn into a flying monkey or something so I can identify with you?)

Maybe it’s that these alterna-world fiction call to the outsider in all of us. I know it calls to the monster in me.

It can be seen as a kind of weakness, like I’m too scared to look things in the eye. (But anyone who thinks that should read China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station. Look into the eye of that dystopia, asshole and then tell me who’s weak?)  But I think it’s different. I don’t just want to escape. I want to transcend. And I think, at its best, this is what good fiction – Fantasy or Not – can do for us. There is a moment, I believe, where escapism becomes transcendence.

Monday, August 15, 2011

All the things.

What did I do today?

ALL OF THE THINGS!!!! (Thanks to Allie Bosh and her AWESOME BLOG of awesomeness for the picture. See the link. See her blog. Allie Bosh Wins the Internet)


And now I am so *tired*. And I just looked at my stupid planner. And tomorrow? You guessed it.
 All of the things. All over again.
But I can do it. Because I am awesome.

Regular human-type blog post coming on Friday.

Know why?


Friday, August 12, 2011

On Appetite

On Fat and Appetite

I was at my local public library branch of a Thursday evening, which is part of my general routine. The (long suffering) Husband goes out to DnD, and we walk out together and I go to the library. I was making my way toward the folklore section and encountered a patron from my own library. For the purposes of this blog post, I feel that she should remain anonymous, so the only identifying characteristics I will give her are the ones most important to this story. She is, frankly, one of my favorite patrons. She is old enough to be my mother. She is very intelligent, a wide reader, and one of the most elegant women I’ve ever met.
And this is what she said to me. (I paraphrase) “Now that we find ourselves outside your library, we meet as friends not just patron and library clerk. So let me ask you something….why don’t you think about losing some weight?”

I feel that I must interject at this point. I am, what is known as “A Big Girl”. I have always been a Big Girl. I’m not ready for my own special on Discovery Health or anything, but it is very rare for me that I am not the Fattest Girl in the Room.

She continued, “It’s just that you’re so intelligent…so well-read ….”

I interrupted her. “Thank you so much, Patron X. I appreciate the concern. I know it is kindly meant.”

And it was. Really, it was. This woman was definitely not trying to make me feel small. (Funny, that. Being told I am Too Big actually made me feel Small.)
But she went on. To tell me about the dieticians at the hospital, and things you could do to lose weight. I repeated my line. “Thank you so much, Patron X. I know it’s kindly meant.”

And still she did not stop. Finally, without meaning to, tears sprang to my eyes and I held up my hand. “Thank you, Patron X. But people have been talking to me about this since I was eleven years old –“

And I didn’t have to finish. She backed off. Immediately. And probably went away concerned that she had upset me.

She did.

But it was kindly meant. It is always, always kindly meant.

But you see it is exactly what is meant that concerns me. Maybe she meant that since I am so intelligent and well-read, that it is somehow distasteful that I not also be beautiful. Perhaps as such an elegant woman herself, she in fact found it illogical or perhaps even immoral that I am not beautiful.

I am not, as it happens, beautiful. But neither was Scarlet O’Hara, according to Margaret Mitchell. (Vivien Leigh is another story.)  But, much like Scarlet, I do have sometimes at my command a force of charisma that can make you think that I am. But still, I felt somehow offensive to her, something broken, something to be fixed with a couple hours on the treadmill and some low-fat salad dressing.

And when I told her I’d been talking about this since I was eleven years old, I was telling the truth. Some of my earliest memories are of adults in my life (well-meaning, kindly adults) talking to me with concern about my weight. Every bite of food that went into my mouth was scrutinized, every packet of sugar in my tea, every drop of salad dressing. “Do you really need that?” was the constant refrain.

I’m sure I don’t have to tell you about all the weight gained and lost, about all the grapefruits consumed and the years spent swimming in shame.

And then several years ago I made a very serious decision. I would no longer have such a strained relationship with my food. I would just eat it. And I could continue to love it if I wanted to.

I’m not talking about eating a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream watching reruns of House. That’s actually the opposite of what I’m talking about. I’m talking about Appetite.

I’m talking about loving real food. Sauces enriched with egg yolk, biscuits hand made with real butter, pasta with olive oil and cheese. Crisp brown roast chicken, with little potatoes cooked in the rendered off fat in the pan. Fish crusted with nuts and seared smoky in the pan. Homemade macaroni and cheese. I put half and half in my coffee. I enjoy a little chocolate or a little pastry almost every day.

Is it because I hate myself? Because I had a troubled childhood? Or because it fills some kind of a void inside me?

No. It is because I have appetite. Not just have an appetite for food. I have an appetite for paintings and performances. For the fur on a cat’s belly. The shape of a dog’s snoot. For books and movies and bright colored frocks and gloves and hats on a regular day. I have an appetite for sex and conversation and color and languages. For Stephen Sondheim and Shakespeare and old black and white movies where everyone smokes. I have an appetite for success and meaningful work and making things grow.

I will not be ashamed of my appetite. In any form it may take.

I think there are many people with weight problems that stem from psychological problems. Many people use food as a crutch, as an addiction, as a way to fill a void. But I reject the widely held idea that every overweight person is somehow damaged, and if they could get over their trauma, they would be able to stick to their diet. Sorry. I mean, their “lifestyle change”.  This lifestyle is one without any of the great things I mentioned above. Or if they are not completely absent, they are so changed (fat-free cheese, biscuits made of whole wheat flour and yogurt, etc) they are unrecognizable. Or else they are so rarified, because they are “bad” they become fetishized. I reject this. I reject this completely.

I refuse to reject my own appetite.

Perhaps I would feel differently if I had ever truly inhabited a thin body. If I had a memory of being gamine and rangy, a memory of being truly beautiful, then maybe I would feel like there was something lost to be found regained. But that is not my story. In many ways, I am grateful.

I have, what I like to call, a kind of reverse body-dysmorphic disorder. These poor women (usually women, anyway) with eating disorders,  look at their frail 70 pound bodies in the mirror and see only a fat person. I, however, walk around in the world…well, like I’m cute. Like I’m normal. Like I may not be really beautiful, but that’s not really that important.
Until, that is, someone approaches me with a suggestion on how I might be happier, if only I would lose some weight. However kindly meant it was, I only hear one thing.  “You are not enough. Make you like me. How dare you be that way? What is wrong with you?”
And I did feel small, but for only a little while. When I remembered my appetite.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Regarding Getting There

Gentle Readers,

I know I've been away for some time. But rest assured, I have been working hard at all sorts of good things.

One of the things I've been doing while away, is, like all of us, getting older. This past Sunday, with a quiet pop, I turned 40. And today, inspired by Sugar’s “Tiny, Beautiful Things” column I am writing what I would say to myself in my twenties.

First. You are fat. But nobody cares but you. Sometimes, it’s like what they say about smoking in Dead Again, “In this life there are people who are smokers and people who are non-smokers. You just have to find out who you are and be that”. You are a smoker. And you are fat. This does not mean that you are not beautiful or desirable or worthy of love. However, it might be a good idea to lay off the processed foods, and go in for good cheese and egg yolks instead.

That guy you met at Target? The one without a fancy education, without artistic ambitions or hipster tendencies? That one. That’s the one. This is the man who will show you what love really looks like when the lights come on.

Work a little harder. Try a little more. Stop feeling so superior to your menial jobs at the temp agency, the health food store.  It is not some tragic act in your Artist’s Bildungsroman. It just *is*. You are not too good for this. No one is.

You will not go all the way crazy and not be able to get back. Know that when you are lost in that maze, the story is your red thread. Remember that your Crazy is King Shahryar. You are Scheherazade. Just keep the stories coming, and you’ll stay alive.

I know you have a fancy education. I know you have an MFA. I know that every adult in your life since memory began has given you the signal that you are somehow special, meant for something, talented, gifted. Come closer now, because this is important. THIS DOES NOT MEAN THAT YOU GET ANYTHING. You will not get anything because you are special and talented. The desert is littered with the bleached bones of special and talented writers with fancy educations. Please. Please. I beg you. Learn to work. Learn to really, really work. Because by the time you get here, you will be sick with all the time you wasted being sick.
 I know you’re working on an experimental novel, but I can tell you that it goes nowhere because you gave it nowhere to go. Remember why you got into this in the first place. Remember your library books. Remember Nancy Drew and Poe and Horror Comics. Because I can tell you, I know what you’re writing now. And you will be very surprised.

But then, I know that you won’t hear any of this. Even if I showed up in the Tardis with the Doctor himself and told you. You just have to find your own way here. And you will. And it was all worth it.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Breaking News, or All the Tea in Holland Park

Readers, the world is changed.
My world is changed.
It is official. Contracts have been signed. I have an agent. A lovely, skilled and competent agent.
Now I know as well as the next person that this does not mean the book has sold, and even if it does that I might not languish on the mid-list, no matter how capable my agent nor how well-written the book. But to have someone...someone with NO vested interest in my emotional well-being (like friends or family) to say that they really, really Love The Book? That they will Do Work to help it, that they believe in it enough to take it on in this way? To partner with it, with me?  That alone makes me think that I have not been up the wrong tree all this time. I have not been wasting my time. And that alone is worth All the Tea in Holland Park.
And it feels, finally … wow. This is really hard to put into words. I spent most of the day yesterday with my brains coming out of face. I walked out the door to meet Walter for coffee right after the call  and I left with no keys and no bus pass. I had to put a five dollar bill in the RIPTA bus. My body went in and out of shock as we sat at the Wayland Square Starbucks and I drank an Iced Americano and ate a Cake Pop. (delicious) And I did what I always do. What I can only do.
I narrated. I told the story. Over and over again. To Walter. To Amy Budd. To Allan. And in telling the story it became more and more real (as things often do with me). Then when the story stopped, I felt the swell of adrenaline again.
Restless and fitful, I wanted to see people last night. But after a cup of tea and some chicken nuggets, I ended up passing out on the sofa in front of the Good Parts of Sherlock Holmes. (Yes, the Guy Ritchie. Don't judge me.)
And this morning I get up, read in bed a little while and continue to be restless and fitful. I have all this excess energy, or headspace, or something – all that had been going to Querying, Worrying, Waiting for an email, the phone to ring, all that energy going to despair that it Would Never Happen and now….well, it looks like I’ve got a free morning.
And I don’t quite know what to do with myself. I think I may soak in the tub.
This will pass, I’m sure. And my overwhelming feeling now is one of wanting to Get To Work.
Let's get to work, shall we?
But first, a tub.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Okay, Internets. Enough already.

Everywhere I look I see someone else telling me how impossible this all is. Impossible for a first time writer to get an agent. And if you do get an Agent, they won’t be able to sell your book and they’ll dump you in six months.
And if they do sell it, you’ll have to do all your own marketing by way of Social Networking. And don’t forget that you can’t just advertise or shill your books, you have make a personal deep connection with all 80 gazillion followers because we only buy things from people we have a personal connection with.
 And don’t forget that bookstores are all going out of business and books are going to be museum pieces by this time next year anyway so why bother? Self published e books are the way to go.
But of course, this is also impossible without doing the Publisher’s work all on your own. And all that overwhelming publicity, layout, editing, cover art – don’t forget that this cuts into your writing time down to next to nothing. And it really doesn’t matter because books are only worth .99 anyway. (Cat Valente has already written, quite articulately,  here, about why this is problematic.)  And don’t forget that you’re probably not going to sell any self-published e-books anyway. J.A. Konrath and Amanda Hocking have already gotten there, so there is No More Room.
No Room. No Room. No Room.
This is all I’ve heard for weeks. Hundreds of Internet Chickens crying “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!”
I’m sorry, Internet. But I just can’t listen to you anymore. You have officially become hysterical. Internet, you are Faye Dunaway in Chinatown throwing your head back and forth crying “Mydaughter!Mysister!” You might need to be slapped.
On one blog, we’re told Writing is a job and to treat it as such. Professional correspondence and web presence, putting the hours in, networking, etc.  On the next, we’re told not to expect to ever get paid. I’m supposed to do it because I love it. But if I don’t get paid, it’s not a job. It’s a hobby. (A tedious one. Like knitting. Says Marge Piercy)  
I hear the same crap about teachers, and that makes my skin crawl, too.
Now I understand why they say this. If my job were sitting in an office reading somebody else’s “surefire blockbuster” take on Stephanie Meyer or Robert Parker, I would certainly go out of my way to discourage it. Publishing a novel is no winning lottery ticket for millions of dollars. But isn’t there something between J.K. Rowling and Dying in Poverty? Is there some kind of shame in wanting to make a living (however modest) doing something that we don’t just “feel passionate about”, but something we are actually Good At Doing? Is this actually impossible?
If  it’s impossible for a new writer to get an agent or a book deal, why is it that I keep seeing new books by new writers on the New Book Shelf of the library every week?
If people are no longer reading books, why do I see so many people doing JUST THAT on public buses and subways?
Books and stories aren’t going anywhere. People actually do have to write them. And if the competition is fierce, let it be fierce. Maybe if I put more energy into Becoming More Awesome (as Catherynne Valente often says) instead of worrying about e book royalties and social networking I would not be tearing out my hair.
Things are changing, certainly. But I wholeheartedly reject the notion that writers are the ones making candles while Edision just starting selling light bulbs. For .99. On Amazon. Books are not going to become marginalized, something to see only in museums, at least not for a while. Sure, on a long enough time line, everything’s life expectancy goes to zero. But for now, let’s just Calm the Fuck Down.
You guys keep freaking out if it makes you feel better. Me? I’m off to try to Become More Awesome. I’m off to Write a Better Book. I’m off to read some of the great books out there. Some of them by first time Authors. (See list below) And I’ll write up more proposals and query letters and keep on trying. Because there is NO WAY that the *real* reality of the situation matches the hysterics that I’m seeing.
Some Good Books:
Under the Poppy by Kathe Koja
Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal
The Habitation of the Blessed by Catherynne M. Valente
What I Didn’t See by Karen Joy Fowler
Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link
The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry
The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia
The Red Tree by Caitlin R. Kiernan

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

On Fear, or How Long Until the Monkey Funeral?

Readers.  You should know that usually I am quite brave about things.
She pauses, jack-rabbits up from the desk. First her sweater, then coffee, then another cigarette. She is uncomfortable with monologue. Even here, she must narrate.
Not necessarily about things like Mean People or Strangers or Big Hipster Parties. These things do frighten me, quite correctly, I think. I mean brave about my life. While I certainly don’t live in a commune, my lifestyle, for some, is unconventional. I don’t work in a cubicle. I don’t have a car or use credit cards. I do not have, nor want offspring. These are very deliberate choices I have made, in order to facilitate my Writing.
She pauses again, wondering at the capitalization of that last word. Wonders if it is too pretentious.  Thinks of the Theater/Theatre question. Decides to leave it.
Yes, it is a risk for me, for my family (childless though it may be, it still is one) – for me to only work part time at the divine Providence Athenaeum in the hopes that one day I’ll sell my books and  be a Real Writer. A Professional Novelist. Most days, I am brave about this risk.
But that day is not today.
I have manuscripts out at three highly reputable agents. (I haven’t even been waiting that long which makes this reaction even more ridiculous) As of now, I have only received one “No”, and that was from a long-shot agent – an agent that I couldn’t believe even wanted to see a Partial manuscript in the first place.
 And yet.
 And yet. I have allowed this to spin out into my ultimate failure as a writer, as a person. This no means they will all say no. And I will have to start over again. With another book.
And while the idea of working on another book as an Agented Author thrills me, working on another book as an Un-Agented Author, at least today, makes me feel positively ill. I will get over this feeling, certainly. And certainly if I have no agent at the end of this process I will write another book. They are just feelings, after all.
She doesn’t understand the use of the word “just” in that last sentence. Lights a cigarette. Leaves the sentence intact. Has a flash of Crazy telling her that an Agent might see this post, see the narration about cigarettes, and decide that they don’t want to work with a smoker. The Crazy is pretty loud today.
And what’s worse, I feel terrible for feeling terrible. I’m supposed to be so brave, with my defiance of convention, with my
Here she drops off, stares out the window. In the distance, the buzzing of some yard work. Her view, the parking lot of her two bedroom apartment. The sunlight brightens and swells, and this chafes her, as it does not match her mood. The icy spring snow yesterday did a better job of that.
…with all my “believing in myself” and “Acting Like It” and “Working Hard” and “Being More Awesome”.  But today I wonder when “Believing in Myself” turns into Norma Desmond style Delusion. How long until the Monkey Funeral? How long until the wire cigarette holder and the “comeback” script of Salome?
Trying to find a way out of this maze, I turn to other writers. And I keep thinking of Louisa May Alcott who said, “I shall take fate by the throat and shake a living out of her.”
Or something.   
Something about this post leaves a bad taste in her mouth. Is it unprofessional to complain, to admit fear and weakness? Even if it’s not unprofessional, does this really add to any kind of conversation about writing or reading? Then why doesn’t she just Shut the Hell Up? Do either of these questions matter, as no one is even reading this?
She takes another drag from her cigarette, and a long pull of cold, four-hour-old coffee. She imagines her hands around Fate’s throat. She imagines shaking her, hard. She imagines the tinkle of a few coins spilling from beneath Fate’s coat. She imagines using them to pay for the monkey funeral.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

On Reading and Pleasure

            The first thing for you to understand, Reader, is that what I read now is not what I read then, and this is due in large part to the nature of my job.  And because books cross my hands at the Circulation Desk I would not normally see, the job has expanded my reading circle in ways I did not expect. This included Popular Fiction, something that as a Serious Student, and then a Serious Writer and Scholar, I had no use for.  
Then, on a lark,  I took home a copy of Barbara Michael’s The Master of Blacktower. I was feeling a bit sick (or maybe just a bit sad), so I took it straight under the covers with a large cup of tea and box of mini cupcakes. This book is, by no means, Great Literature. The Jane Eyre tropes were apparent, as they are in much of Romantic Suspense, and while the writing may not have been beautiful, it was seamless and invisible. The plot was far-fetched, but it was so ridiculous and it was paced so well, I was just pulled along. And it was fun.
Really, really fun.
            Fun, remember? Remember Fairies? Remember Kissing? Remember Pirate Ships and Space Aliens and Werewolves? Remember, guys?
            As children the adults in our lives – our parents, librarians and teachers – went to great lengths to find books that we would actually like, to make sure that reading became something fun to do, something we would want to do, so that … well, to ensure that we would be Readers. And then we grow up and become adults and all the Pirate Ships and Fairies get put away leaving us with what? Couples going through a harrowing divorce. People sitting across the table from each other dealing with their Alcoholism and Not Telling Their Father How They Really Feel. And any book that might contain a character or a situation that would Not Be Possible In Real Life, all too often gets shoved in the children’s room, whether that’s appropriate or not. Because , if it’s not Something Real, how could a Real Adult be interested in it? N’est pas?
            It all makes me so bored I feel like I’m going deaf.
            And the books that give us something else, that might give us something exciting, like a murder or zombies and an airship or a tragic romance are dismissed, noses are wrinkled, hands are waved in front of faces and people say, “Oh, I don’t read those kind of books.”
            I’m not talking about excusing bad and sloppy writing.  But I just don’t understand why a crappy ‘GENRE’ novel is somehow so much crappier than a crappy Literary novel. I also don't understand why the use of an established structure demeans the book. We don't say this about Sonnets, for example.  And for that matter, I don’t understand why Literary Novels don’t see themselves as a genre, why they too often take themselves so seriously, why they feel the need to take 50 or 100 pages to ”teach us how to read it”.  There are “literary” novels I enjoy, but most of these end up using some of the same structures and tropes at work, in say Mysteries or Adventures. And some of the “genre” books I’ve most enjoyed use a level of language or an innovation of structure often seen (or at least attempted) in Literary Novels.
            What are the books that have been the Most Fun for you? Do you even think about books this way? What’s the last book you read that really surprised you? Or do you shy away from reading books altogether, because you’re afraid that you’ll be bored?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

On Technology and Wonder

Firstly, let me admit that my relationship to technology is a bit unusual. It was once said of me that I am more “Telegraphs and Fountain Pens” than “iPhones and Facebook”. While that is true, at least in an aesthetic manner, I am not above being glamoured by gadgetry. And so I have been.
I have gotten a new phone that is clearly governed by Alien Space Magic.  Among it’s many  capabilities, it makes calls (of course), takes better pictures than I have ever taken (even with a good camera), plays music, and checks my email for me. This means that never again do I have to open up the computer with trepidation wondering if this is the very moment Agent X (or Y or Agent 99) has sent me a message requesting a manuscript. I only have to wait for the angelic electronic trill to tell me.  Additionally, this object also seems to have a time traveling ability – it can play old radio programs like The Shadow or Dragnet – ones that I have never owned or downloaded. Just pulls them from the ether of time and space.
But there has been something a bit disquieting about my own behavior in regards to this. Much of my relationship with it, indeed most of my time with it, is spent…well…setting it up. There must be something else it needs to do. Like be a voice recorder. Or play a Sherlock Holmes game. Or take notes for me. There must be something better to play the music. To show the pictures. To log the calls. To make it look different. To make it look less like a phone. What Android Theme defines me as a person?
I have seen a great deal of talk lately: books, interviews on NPR (about the aforementioned books, usually), blog posts – speculating on whether Today’s Technology is making us Smarter or, conversely how it’s making us Stupid. I really think it’s neither of these things. So often we think that the problem is the object: this computer, this iPhone, this mp3 Player.  We’ve had the same ambivalent feelings about technology for centuries. (See Jonathan Kaplan’s take on Thoreau on Mail, or one of my favorites, Introducing the Book )
All too often our attitude to technology is one of either Utter Terror (Look out! The machines will rise up against us!) or Entitlement (This doesn’t anticipate my every need and work perfectly every moment of its life. *tantrum*tantrum*) . The first way is problematic, certainly. I see this a lot in libraries. This kind of black-and-white thinking. E-readers are an evil enemy sent to destroy us, or All books should be pulped and replaced with Kindles.  But those are thoughts for another time.
Perhaps we should spend more of our time in wonder and in awe of what these things can do, instead of what they can’t. Allow ourselves to wonder at them, at the Alien Space magic we hold in our hands. This is Star Trek, stuff, Readers. This is Science Fiction, sitting right next to me on the charger.
It’s an amazing thing, really. I’ll try to remember that.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Regarding Failure

I am not a great commenter of blog posts. Neither am I, for that matter a great reader of them, although the ones I read, I do so with some regularity. There are several reasons for this: often, I feel that what I have to say does not actually add to the conversation. There seems to be little room for anything other than “Eee Gads! You’re terrific!” or “Great Caesar’s Ghost, you’re a moron!”. But this week after reading one of Catherynne Valente’s excellent blogs, it started me thinking about things like excellence, and more particularly, failure. The entire blog post can be seen here, but I shall quote a foreshortened relevant passage below. Be advised, the words here are not her own, but those she quoted from Jacob Clifton from Television without Pity:

"I mean, it's just a TV show. Surely not every episode can be a home run, right? And my response would be: Why the fuck not? When did we get to the point where excellence gets graded on a curve? Why give yourself, the show, anything that pass? Why give yourself, the show, anything that pass? I am so violently opposed to this concept of "everybody screws up now and then," it's not even funny. What a nasty, masturbatory, self-aggrandizing, lazy, stupid sentiment. I'd rather not have the conversation at all, if that's the only option, because at that point you're defending the indefensible: I like the show enough to lie and say this wasn't that bad. Who does that help? How does that induce transformation? How can you rise, when you give yourself the option of taking a nap? You fuck up, you learn, you try harder, you get better, you get stronger. You don't lay down and go to sleep and close your eyes and shut down the conversation: you evolve. This episode couldn't be worse, but it could be a great fucking deal better: Why isn't it?

I think there’s a great deal to think about here. I think that he’s right: the way we get better is by trying, fucking up and learning and trying again. But as for the “why the fuck not” response to the question, “Why can’t everything be a home run?”…here is where we may divide.

I agree, that this is how we get better. At least it would be, if this were the way it actually played out. But not everyone is Jacob Clifton or Catherynne Valente. In fact what I’ve seen trawling the message boards and blogspaces of Internet is just the opposite: It’s an entire mob with pitchforks chanting “U SUCK! U SUCK!” This, by and large, is not helpful. This, by and large, does not make anything better. At all.

I do think that ignoring failures in books, movies, television shows – any kind of art or media the public engages with– is extremely problematic. But we need to not just point them out, not to just acknowledge failures, but applaud them -- Not as false successes but as the failures they ARE. If a culture started applauding failures, perhaps artists would be more likely to risk something. When something fails, someone risked. This is what is valuable.

But I find that we expect our artists and entertainers to be IMMEDIATELY and CONTINUOUSLY AWESOME. This is not ever going to happen. This is because art is made by people. Actual people, struggling in their studies, their studios, at their notebooks and computers with day jobs, rent to pay, crying babies and barking dogs. Making stuff is hard. Making great stuff is harder. It takes time to develop sometimes, it takes practice to sustain. And all too often, when I hear the chanting of ‘U SUCK! U SUCK’, what I actually hear is “Make yours like mine.”

And when these things (made by people) turn out to be less awesome than we would have liked, instead of wondering why (as Clifton does) or trying to have a dialogue (not just with the artist, but with each other) about how it might get better, we just point our pitchforks and begin the chant again. U SUCK. U SUCK.
No one wants to hear this. And I don’t mean that we should not give or get criticism, even fact, quite the contrary. But the ceaseless chanting, all too often is not helpful, and meant only to hurt, and make the chanter feel like they have some power. (Has anyone else noticed that only Stupid People Like Things? That if they were Smarter they would know that it actually Sucked?)

Because of this, people, if they make anything at all (because really, why bother when posting snarky reviews about everything that SUCKS is just as great, not as difficult, and you’re certainly not risking anything), they make things that are wildly mediocre – which can get consumed, and possibly condemned as part of a larger Mediocre Group (“Oh, that Urban Fantasy!”, “Oh, those Reality Shows!”). But rarely will they be looked at closely on an individual level. Shew. Now you are safe from the pitchforks and torches and the l33tspking mob.
As a writer myself, I know just what a feat writing a whole book can be. Much less writing a book that sings, that is beautiful and great. Hold writers and artists to a standard of excellence. Raise that bar of excellence higher. And I think this means having compassion for failures. But I also think it means, more importantly, to try harder to Fail more Spectacularly.

Try to figure out what something is before you point your finger and begin the chant. Shut up for a minute and LOOK at it. Then look at it AGAIN. Sometimes, it’s not the piece of work that’s “not interesting”. Sometimes it’s the viewer. Learn the difference between “I Like It” and “It is Good.” Applaud failure. Encourage it on epic proportions. And Fail Spectacularly, yourself.