Monday, May 31, 2010

Reading SF/Fantasy, Part Four

I recently heard a lecture from Salman Rushdie that was devoted to the idea that a narrow idea of realism/naturalism has come to dominate "serious" literature despite the fact that it's a historical and cultural anomaly. (Sound familiar?) Rushdie called it the Sterne/Richardson split where so many writers follow the Richardson side, even if this seems a tad dubious as legit analysis of literary development.

What stood out most is that despite Rushdie's stated attempt to rope in the ignored or outsiders or neglected he focused almost entirely on canonical work. There were passing mentions of Tolkien, Harry Potter and Lost but it was unclear whether he'd actually read any of those (except Lost which he said he's never watched). He did make a pointed and accurate dig at Avatar but his most positive references were to Garcia Marquez, the Arabian Nights, the Brothers Grimm and one or two similar. Not even the SF/fantasy writers that have been grabbed by the lit establishment: LeGuin, Crowley, Bradbury. And especially not the great SF/F writers who could be listed by the dozens but if you're reading this you already know. (Unless I suppose you're Rushdie who I would recommend Lieber, Lafferty, Pratchett, Blaylock, Lansdale, CA Smith, Wolfe, Peake, Wellman, Merritt, etc without even getting to the SF side (or for that matter the metaficational side).)

It was also hard not to wonder about whether he really meant this when he devoted a long section of the lecture to determining exactly how many people had been killed during the Arabian Nights. In a sense this is a question of some interest (only possibly and only very limited interest) but what he was after was an approach to the text as a realist work. In other words he made the calculation using the assumption that the frame story is a literal and exact account though the catch is that Rushdie didn't seem aware that's what he was doing. It's that lack of awareness that made me wonder whether he really is as dedicated or even aware of literary broadness as he stated. Perhaps, perhaps not.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Reading SF/Fantasy, Part Three

The first two posts had been written (at some point I had the silly idea of doing an entire week on this topic) when another appeared that to a large degree parallels what I was writing. A writer at IO9 says that genre labels are really just reading instructions and I think he has a point. Douglas Wolk made a similar argument for comics using the inevitable though inelegant term "super-readers". Super-readers are the ones with hundreds and hundreds of comics stories in their brains, who can understand not just the character histories but the dense web of allusions, variety of techniques and good ole storytelling conventions. Super-readers are the ones who could tell you why any Spider-Man reference to a clone is meant to be funny or why the Batcave has a giant penny or could explain the rise and fall of the thought balloon.

Now the problem with comics readers is that too many prefer this so creators have taken to using super-reader familiarity as a barrier to non-comics fans instead of a shortcut or a foundation for more complex stories. (Watchmen has always reminded me of a Godard film - newcomers will get the point but the deeper your familiarity with comics and cinema the more you'll get from the work.) If you're an outsider then pick up pretty much any recent superhero comics (though this will stand out best--or is that worst?--in Blackest Night or Siege) or if you're an insider then just imagine if you didn't get any of this. Sometimes a writer will push this to the point that even super-readers balk (as Grant Morrison learned with Batman: RIP and Final Crisis) but that's pretty rare. Or sometimes a writer makes a mistake such as a recent issue of Brave and the Bold that featured Xombi, a character from a defunct company who hasn't appeared in over a decade but the writer never offered the slightest explanation of who he was.

This reading-instruction idea would also explain why so much film SF it noticably simpler (and usually simpler-minded) than written SF. Sure there's a ton of written SF that's no more thoughtful than Star Wars (not really SF but that's a topic for another time) or Avatar but the catch is that there's really not a lot of first-rate film SF and that would be because it has to be accessible for mainstream audiences. Not accessible in the sense of taking away references or ideas but in not leaving viewers feeling like they don't understand something, a feeling that SF readers take as an element of the genre. (I don't mean that SF readers believe they're too dumb to understand but that they're willing to go along with something with either the idea that the writer has figured it out or that it will be explained later, depending on how important it is to the story and maybe even the subgenre.)

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Reading SF/Fantasy, Part Two

Ted Gioia (Dana's brother) has written a piece asking "Did sci-fi writers from the 1940s and 1950s anticipate the future of serious literature better than the so-called 'serious writers' or, for that matter, the highbrow critics?" (The site doesn't have a permalink so if you're trying to find this much past the post date you may have to poke around a bit.)

The one thing I would emphasize is he's talking about "future of serious literature" not The Future in general. One thing people unfamiliar with SF tend to latch onto is how well it's predicting The Future but that's never been the point of SF. Writers weren't really trying to determine if there would be flying cars or ringworlds or generation ships or what have you - they're playing with ideas. Gioia tends to go a bit too far in the other direction, knocking hard SF since it "always prove[s] to laughably wrong-headed" without quite realizing that even here it's the "F" in SF that's important.

And I can't help but point out that what Gioia is calling "conceptual fiction" pretty much everybody else calls SF & Fantasy. True, he's trying to be more inclusive and pull in magical realism, faux allegories, quasi-fairy tales, some metafiction, etc but nearly all that really is SF&F just not labelled that way. Trying to be helpful with this marketing issue many writers and critics have taken to calling this other stuff "slipstream" though so far it's nearly all SF&F-derived writers who do so.

Still, Gioia's piece is decent but the big problem is it doesn't seem very effective. For me and the few people reading this blog he's preaching to the choir and doing so as somebody who just converted so excuse us for being a tad dubious. But it's even harder to imagine the "serious" critics/readers he mentions deciding hey they should give these books a try and maybe the foundation of their aesthetics is really just sand after all. After all the Library of America recently admitted Dick, Lovecraft and that fantastic tales anthology while publishers like Vintage or NYRB Classics push Bester, Wyndham and a few others. That could give the impression of being open-minded but we know it's not really true.

Maybe it would have helped if Gioia pointed out that the current conception of realism/naturalism that dominates "serious" fiction is pretty much a historical anomaly. The idea didn't even quite exist until about the 19th century or at least rarely as anything more than grace notes. Even what we have today as realism is fairly narrow, deriving in the "serious" lit world from Joyce/Chekhov quiet observation and epiphanies or from Joyce/Faulkner language play and regionalism. (I know this is a very abstracted and peculiar view but for one sentence I think it's basically correct.)

To me it boils down to something Christopher Hitchens wrote back when Harpers did its Annotated column: "Read widely and read deeply." Easier stated than done of course and for those of us with decreasing amounts of time it's not likely that we're going to experiment too much. But how much you really claim to know an art form does depend on this just as I can't take seriously a film critic who couldn't tell you a thing about, say, Ulmer, Fuller, Kiarostami, Wiseman, Trinh, Dwan, Gehr, Rollin, etc.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Reading SF/Fantasy, Part One

The recent Southern fiction issue of Oxford American had a piece about Donald Barthleme that discussed in some detail his story "City of Churches".

As a freshman at the University of Alabama in 1979, I was put in the advanced English class which as far as I could tell (or remember) meant that there was more focus on literature than continually writing papers. When we read Sartre's story "The Wall" one student started discussing how this tied in to existentialism as if we all knew what was what but as a small-town kid from south Alabama, unlike this Birmingham guy, I'd never heard about any of that. (And if you're not a Southerner you likely won't realize that north and south Alabama are quite different.) Growing up I read constantly, didn't watch much TV and not many movies, and the reading was nearly all SF/fantasy with bits of parallel lit (Doc Savage pulps, a few mysteries here and there, some of the more ghost-story-looking romances like Victoria Holt, military histories). But I didn't read Sartre or for that matter almost any of the standard canon, not even in school.

So when the class came to read "City of Churches" I ended up in an oddly reversed situation. The story is about a woman who visits a city where all the buildings are churches. The class went nuts and had the hardest time with this but for me, who'd spent years reading books with radically different worlds or even laws of physics and where actually specifying the changes in detail was considered weak writing, for me this story was no problem. In fact I loved it in a way I didn't the Sartre. (Though today I have resisted re-reading Barthleme because of a feeling that I'll find him far less interesting than I did in my 20s. And I've still read almost no more Sartre.)

So reading SF/Fantasy made me more open to postmodernist writing? Maybe, it certainly creates a greater willingness to tolerate differences, at least for a while. Still I suspect this is more related to whatever quirk made me instantly like free jazz, musique concrete and structuralist film (not to mention other writers from Pound to Borges to Pynchon). After all most SF/Fantasy readers can be quite dismissive of experimentation of any kind.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

from the library

Since I can't twitter the list then the blog must be where documentation can be documented for that 25th century historian:

Dominguez - Mexico in Mind
Greene - The Lawless Roads
Lynd - Wobblies & Zapatistas
Buchenau - Mexico Otherwise
Powers - France in Mind
Kay Ryan - Best of It: New & Sel Poems
Burt - Art of the Sonnet
Wells - Shakespeare & Co.
Warren - Sel Poems of Robert Penn Warren
Assouline - Simenon A Biography

The Mexican books are because this Sept is the country's bicentennial so I'm working on events and displays for our store. And of course US schools teach so little history that I knew pretty much nothing about Mexico.

Twittering 3

It's hardly news that the severe space constraint of Twitter precludes almost anything of substance and like most people my idea had been that it's mostly what-I-just-ate stream-of-consciousness from people distracted by sparkles and bushes that look like puppies. That's why discovering the network of links and news items seemed interesting - just the goods without the (already minor) trouble of full blogging.

But the thing is - faced with a blank Twitter box about all I can think to do is document something personal and utterly trivial. But since I don't even care about that then certainly nobody else does (not even you Mr 25th Century Historian Trying to Recover Our Daily Lives).

And while it seems like this might be where I add whatever cultural items I've encountered again the limited space makes it opaque at best, useless at not-best. (Mexico: The Frozen Revolution is a B, maybe B+ for effort, B- for actual interest) How's that help? Still, it's better than dining histories.

Crisis of comics publishing

Augie de Blieck over at CBR has a summary of the problems with mainstream comics publishing that's pretty accurate. He highlights the word "purposefully" a couple of times and though it's a bit hard to picture editors or marketing staff at The Big Two consciously limiting their audience it may be just as hard to think that they're completely unaware that this is exactly what they're doing. High prices, convoluted stories that lose even readers like me, dedication to a format only fans like, etc probably drive away readers just as much as any nerdish aura to comics. Just remember a few years ago when it looked like the entry of trade paperbacks into mainstream stores would be the breakthrough? Just walk into a big store now. If you can even find the things (and Borders seems to shift them periodically) there's no concession made for readers. Some tpb series are numbered, some aren't, and in any case which series needs to be read in order? If somebody likes the Iron Man movies and goes into the store how do they know what to do with a couple dozen books? (Hint: Don't start with the "Essential" volume 1 which of course sounds like the most obvious.) The Big Two increasingly put new releases into hardcover first apparently to satisfy a fairly small slice of their already small fan base but apparently also to seem like "real" publishers. Thing is that unlike a regular trade publisher they've already recouped costs through the original serial publication so the hardcovers are bad marketing excesses. You have to wonder when even a newish publisher like Boom follows this same pattern for their Pixar and Muppet books - who on earth buys the pamphlets for The Incredibles or Muppets other than collectors? Just starting with the tpb is going to hit the parents as well as the regular fans.

And of course this doesn't even get into the managa world which is in the start of its long-anticipated contraction.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Twittering 2

Well trying to resolve the retweet display issue I heard that it doesn't happen with Tweetdeck so I decided to try that. Catch is that it requires some Adobe program to download so I figured to skip it. After finding nothing else I thought let's do Tweetdeck and uninstall the Adobe program right after the download which is what I did. But then Tweetdeck wouldn't run at all because despite saying it needed the Adobe to download it actually needs it to run at all. And I don't want more junk on my computer - I don't even have Adobe Acrobat partly for that reason but even more because pdfs are clumsy and annoying.

It turns out that the other big third-party Twitter programs either also use that Adobe program or are aimed at pro users so I gave up on those. Tried experimenting with old-style retweets where you basically just copy and paste but apart from being extra work it just displayed odd. The legit Twitter account in the post didn't show with a link while the non-legit one did. Most likely this is the way I used the "@" but still it hardly seems worth the trouble. And the ugly RSS feed is very slow to update.

So at the moment I'm think there's no reason to keep trying to figure this out. My Twitter was intended as simply an additional info stream but since it can't be used completely for that it will be an additional commentary stream. Mostly useless commentary but there ya are.

Monday sitcom finales

I had a weakness for the four: The Big Bang Theory closed last season with a clever riff on being gone for a summer but this time the episode could have been almost anywhere in the season. Too bad much of the real geekiness has drained out . How I Met Your Mother has never been particularly good but this season dropped most of the flashbacks and intertwined stories while trying to turn the aggressively one-dimensional Barney into something almost two-dimensional until it felt more and more like a chore to watch. Ending with the start of a pregnancy storyline means it's also the end for me. Two and a Half Men also seems unsure where to go after wisely jettisoning the fiancee but then spending far too much time on potty jokes. This may have also overstayed its (minor) welcome. As for Rules of Engagement I'm not sure if this was the finale since it started late and only has 13 eps so far. But the creators seem to have been toying with creating an almost-classic farce though an admittedly low-key one and let down mainly by an oddly slack resolution. Still Patrick Warburton should be on far more shows.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


I had no real interest in Twitter until doing it at work for promotional purposes then realizing that it's pretty cool for news updates instead of simply people recording the minutae of their daily lives. When I found it's possible to display Twitter on my blog then the whole thing seemed like a good idea.

And of course there's a catch: The Twitter gadget that displays doesn't show any retweets. (After searching it turns out that there's something called a user timeline which is what's actually displayed and that doesn't have the retweets.) For me this is a big deal because those other tweets are what got me started on this at all. I found a way to put the RSS feed on the blog which does show the retweets but is darn ugly because it's doing everything as links and not just text. There might be some way to reformat this display but I can't find it easily and at the moment don't feel like doing more research. And I tried doing what's called old-style retweets which is not using Twitter's retweet button but copying and pasting the other tweet. The catch is that when the other site's name is added the character length is exceeded and I don't want to take credit by removing their name.

Couldn't Twitter just add an option to display retweets?

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Short story anthologies

I checked out the recent (7th) edition of Ann Charters' text The Story and Its Writer because she had added a section on graphic storytelling. It's a fairly timid start: a page of McCloud, three of Eisner showing how Hamlet could be done in the form, Crumb's Kafka adaptation and excerpts from Satrapi, Spiegelman, G. Hernandez, Taniguchi and Barry. Not bad really but an entire Spirit story and a more typical Crumb would really have done a better job.

What interested me looking at the rest of the anthology is that even in 2007 it's so predictably mainstream. Is Charters really that narrow-minded or is she just afraid professors won't use this in class if it's not following the canon. Out of all the writers included only Bradbury and LeGuin could be considered out of the literary mainstream and that's only in a pinch since the lit.main. long ago adopted them (and as far as I'm concerned they can keep LeGuin). Just think of all the fine and important writers who are missing due to Charters' enormous blindness - Chandler, Sturgeon, Gene Wolfe, Ballard, Lafferty, Ellison, Aldiss, Bloch, Roald Dahl, Moorcock, Frederic Brown and so on and so on. The "genre" world has produced many of the best short story writes over the past century if for no other reason than because this has stayed mostly an actual renumerative market. (Though another reason would be that that the SFF world has been remarkably open to unconventional approaches, despite the Dangerous Visions/New World growing pains.)

Maybe not that important but I read a few of the stories here that were new to me (despite the current trend towards enormous anthologies making the book almost too unwieldly to read) and they weren't the kind of thing that makes me think "Oh well it's OK because this is so good." A Chinua Achebe story is so pointless that I think it was included only through some kind of misguided affirmitive action and there are a few others just like it.

I recently stumbled across another story anthology that was also intended for classroom use - Milton Crane's 50 Great Short Stories. First published in 1952 it's still in print and is a much more fertile selection. Alongside the usual suspects (Chekhov, Hemingway, Joyce, etc) you'll find O. Henry, Saroyan, Lardner, Mencken (!), Huxley, Thurber, John O'Hara - folk now mostly but unjustly out of fashion. There's also a selection from a recent discovery John Collier who wrote tight, imaginative comic and fantasy pieces though he was about as mainstream as you could get, just not literary mainstream. His "De Mortuis" is a gem-bright masterpiece of construction and character creation through tiny strokes, all with an amazing double-twist ending. Crane isn't any bigger on the "genre" crowd than Charters (unless Lord Dunsany counts) but the book feels more like actual storytelling rather than the world of creative writing workshops.

Perhaps even better is Randall Jarrell's Book of Stories, reissued a few years back by NYRB Classics, but I'm planning to do a full post about it.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The wages of academia

Maybe it's worth starting out by saying Paul Lopes' Demanding Respect: The Evolution of the American Comic Book (2009) is more or less a passable history. Reading it would give you a decent idea of the broad outline of exactly what its subtitle promises but probably not much more. At heart the book is a high school term paper which isn't surprising since at heart much, possibly most, academic writing is merely a more complex variant of such papers: dutiful marshalling of sources, obsessive even excessive footnoting, appeal to other authorities, broad claims of value with little noticable result, a deliberately unimaginative style (the result of forcing people who aren't interested in writing to write), and so on.

Academic books often start with references to canonical writers/thinkers almost like classical epics started with an invocation to the muses. In Lopes' case it's Bourdieu and Fiske before he's off developing his own not-particularly-helpful terms (Heroic Age) and then apparently believing he's doing serious work by claiming comics are "recombinant culture", something comics fans have always loved, and loved loudly, about the form. Always amusing is the assumption that until academics handled the subject not much of real importance had been done - in his introduction Lopes notes the "first serious academic works on comic books in the United States" as if this was some kind of landmark and then the next paragraph snidely swipes at authors who "have written general trade books". (I've even had a history professor tell me with no apparent irony that only academics can write history with any real value.)

But so what? Well back to my remark that the book is "more or less a passable history" let's check the index. Well nothing about Barks or Bendis. Look a little more - no Stanley or DeCarlo, no Fine or Meskin, no Grant Morrison (but a mention of Toni Morrison), no Steranko, Chaykin, Jack Cole, neither of the Simonsons, Wolverton, P. Craig Russell, Will Elder, Jaxon, Bill Warren, and so on.

It's not just that a history can't mention even all the major figures (or you end up with something like David Cook's History of Narrative Film that's so burdened with endless lists that it's practically useless). But Lopes seems, and now we're back at high school term paper territory, to have not read much of the material and worked mainly from easily available histories. He is a sociologist so let's be kind and assume he has no interest in art or creativity but a glance through the notes (there is no bibliography) doesn't show many sources beyond the obvious. Comics history is nothing if not heavily documented but the catch is that most of this isn't in easily available sources (Lopes does use Alter Ego though) and probably more importantly for a book like this not easily available in university libraries. (The university library I use has a fairly large selection of academic books on comics -- in fact that's where I checked out this Lopes book -- but very little primary material, excepting an astounding two entire fixtures of Japanese-language manga.) By the way, The Falcon wasn't the first black superhero (as claimed on page 68) - that distinction goes to the Black Panther who Lopes mentions in the exact same sentence.

Unfortunately there isn't a good overall history of comic books. Roger Sabin's Comics, Comix & Graphic Novels might be the best since it's well-illustrated and covers British as well as American but it has too much an overview approach. Bradford Wright's Comic Book Nation is solid up until the Comics Code and then the author seems to have lost interest - two-thirds of comics history is covered in just the last third of the book. Steranko, Feiffer and Goulart's books are outdated or narrow while others such as the Rough Guide or Paul Gravett's Graphic Novels tend to be more consumer oriented than history minded.