Readercon 24

I was lucky enough to spend this past weekend hanging out with a bunch of nerdy, smart, brilliant speculative fiction writers at Readercon 24, an annual SFF convention in the Boston area. It’s a unique SFF con in that there’s no costuming, no gaming, very little reference to films or TV: It’s just about the books and the authors and the people who love them. It is quite literally three straight days of people talking about books.

Fan-freaking-tastic.

I’m still trying to process everything. I and two friends from my critique group split a hotel room for the weekend, so except for two excursions outside for meals I spent the three days entirely enclosed in a relatively small event space crammed full of authors, editors, bloggers, and so forth. Only minutes after I arrived on Friday I managed to nearly walk into one of my favorite authors, and later I bought a book in the dealers room only moments before the author of said book walked up to the same table. It was both weird and exhilarating to be surrounded by so many people whose names and faces and writing I recognized and knew.

I had very little sleep and somehow kept myself to spending only $30 in the dealers room, divided evenly between ChiZine Publications and Small Beer Press. There were hundreds more dollars worth of books I wanted to buy, itched to buy, if only my wallet had been a little bigger. One of the first things I did when I got home (after eating and unpacking and lying on the sofa for a bit) was add books to my to-read list on Goodreads: Salsa Nocturna by Daniel Jose Older, Redwood and Wildfire by Andrea Hairston, In the Forest of Forgetting by Theodora Goss, Hammered by Elizabeth Bear…. There are more, many more, including at least one book that’s not even published yet. And as awesome as it is to meet these writers in person, the fact that I now get to “meet” new writers in the pages of their books is in some ways even more exciting.

I went to as many panels and readings as I could handle, and took a few breaks when I couldn’t take any more. Half these breaks ended up being more discussion of books in smaller groups and quieter places. I met a lot of new people, at least of half of whose names I’ve already forgotten (and they me, I’m sure). I lurked a little, listening far more than speaking, but drinking up the positive energy exuding from nearly everyone in every room. Readercon — like all large gatherings of like-minded, passionate individuals — was equally exhausting and energizing, and I think at the end of the day that’s the primary benefit of attending in the first place. You go, you get excited, you meet new people and find new authors to read, and you come home feeling tired but charged, ready to write the next great novel — once you’ve had a few solid hours of sleep.

Advertisements

Here We Go Again: Literary v. Genre

Oh goody, it’s a new essay from The New Yorker about the difference between genre and literary fiction! Good thing too, because it had been so long since I was last reminded of the distinction — I might have forgotten I was writing inferior stuff, so thanks, Arthur Krystal. I really needed that.

The essay is mostly what you’d expect (1984 isn’t science fiction, right?), and the logic doesn’t line up beginning to end. But there are some cringe-inducing moments.

What I’m trying to say is that “genre” is not a bad word, although perhaps the better word for novels that taxonomically register as genre is simply “commercial.” Born to sell, these novels stick to the trite-and-true, relying on stock characters whose thoughts spool out in Lifetime platitudes. There will be exceptions, as there are in every field, but, for the most part, the standard genre or commercial novel isn’t going to break the sea frozen inside us.

Which is worse, Lifetime platitudes or over-wrought metaphors? You decide!

It gets even funnier when he goes on and tries to suggest some kind of universal thawing that occurs when people read the literary giants.

One reads Conrad and James and Joyce not simply for their way with words but for the amount of felt life in their books. Great writers hit us over the head because they present characters whose imaginary lives have real consequences (at least while we’re reading about them), and because they see the world in much the way we do: complicated by surface and subterranean feelings, by ambiguity and misapprehension, and by the misalliance of consciousness and perception. Writers who want to understand why the heart has reasons that reason cannot know are not going to write horror tales or police procedurals.

Joseph Conrad — whom I’ve never read — is a problematic example given the racist overtones of Heart of Darkness. I’ve only read one of Henry James’s stories and it was a long time ago, but I wasn’t impressed. But James Joyce — of course he’d be mentioned in such an article. He is the God of the modernists, God of the academic literary world, God of The New Yorker and the rest of literature’s supposed “last stand” against the onslaught of the masses. (This sounds ridiculous, but I did once hear the staff of an academic lit mag describe themselves in similar terms, so…) But so what? I’m glad, I guess, that James Joyce can thaw the icy seas of Krystal’s heart. But I absolutely can’t stand it when people suggest I have to like James Joyce too, or else I’m uncultured, uneducated, a “mere” genre reader.

James Joyce is at least half the reason I didn’t go for my MFA, albeit indirectly. By senior year of college I was tired of reading quiet epiphany stories revolving around failed middle class marriages coming apart at the seams while the characters ran off to have messy affairs and sneak the occasional hit of their teenage child’s pot supply. And the quiet epiphany story that currently has such a strong love for the failed middle class marriage coinciding with the mid-life crisis — that “trite-and-true” story began with James Joyce’s “The Dead.” And it just keeps going.

But that’s fine. I just decided to step off that train (and like I said, it wasn’t the whole reason I didn’t go). Krystal can read and enjoy all the Joyce he wants. He can continue to like Joyce and his cohorts more than those commercial novels. Whatever floats his boat.

What I hate is when someone decides it’s time to step out and declare that their tastes and perspective are more important than mine — or yours. I don’t presume to think that everyone who reads Catherynne Valente’s The Orphan’s Tales is going to experience a total shift in the way they think of gender roles and the importance of subtext in the stories we tell. Not everyone will be dazzled by the poetic language or floored by the depth of the world she creates (one that is, if you ask me, “complicated by surface and subterranean feelings”). And that’s fine. That’s why we keep writing and reading new books, and why we need so many different ones — they’re not going to read the same way to all people.

Here’s a fact: the literary canon has been in the hands of white middle to upper class men for centuries. Not everyone who reads books is a white middle/upper class man. Not all white middle/upper class men are the same anyway. Ergo, there is no such thing as universality. Some people would like to believe there is, that there’s some kind of literary quality not influenced by personal tastes, experiences, history, and tradition. But that’s not how the world works. The only thing that’s universal is story itself: the telling of tales to reveal truths and bring us together.

Why isn’t that enough?

I Don’t Need to Know the Color of Your Heroine’s Underwear: A Rant

Recently I picked up and attempted to read a literary horror novel called The Reapers are the Angelswritten by Alden Bell. The title is swoonworthy; so is the opening: “God is a slick God. Temple knows. She knows because of all the crackerjack miracles still to be seen on this ruined globe.” I mean, based on those two things alone (and the zombies, can’t forget those) I didn’t think I would have to put much effort into enjoying this one.

And the beginning of the book is pretty good. Early on, Temple evinces her toughness by dispatching three zombies at once in a dark basement with only one long knife — a scene that, although a tad disappointing in its relentless look-how-tough-this-girl-is! vibewas no real struggle to get through. (Some people like the superhuman character. Usually I find these characters offputting and distant, their badassery so extreme they seem alien.) Not long after dispatching the zombies she runs into some people, a group of men, and it takes about two seconds for one of the guys to start creeping on her.

This was probably when the disappointment started to appear. At this point, clearly there was going to be rape (or attempted rape). My disappointment had a couple of levels to it, ranging from “Good lord another story about the rapeability of women” to “seriously, this is the most creative thing you could come up with?” Maybe I just haven’t yet recovered from George R. R. Martin’s A Feast for Crows or Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or the recent furor over the updated Tomb Raider game — but it does seem to me that the world has a lot of stories about tough ladies coming under the threat of rape. And I’m at the point now where I’m ready to read slightly more positive images of women characters, without this constant reminder: “You are a woman, therefore you can be raped!” I mean, women have other stories too, guys. There are even ways to create deep, interesting female characters without resorting to backstories of sexual abuse or rape. This shit happens enough in real life; wouldn’t it be nice if our literature didn’t completely normalize the behavior?

Still, I realize that rape does happen and is an important subject to address in fiction, so although disappointing this isn’t a deal-breaker. I still fully intended to give the book a fair chance, until the character-looks-in-a-mirror scene came along and ruined everything:

Blond hair, lean face with long eyelashes framing two bright blue eyes. She could be pretty. She tries to look more like a girl, holding herself in the way she’s seen girls do, pouting out her lips and lowering her chin and raising her eyebrows. Her little breasts aren’t much of anything, and her bottom is flat — but she has seen glamorous women in magazines with bodies like hers, so she supposes it’s all right.

She dresses again with the new underpants Ruby got for her. They are cotton with roses all over them. Ruby also got her a brassiere, but she doesn’t put that on.

Okay. First, let’s keep in mind that this is how fifteen-year-old Temple is seeing herself in the mirror — it’s third person, but everything up to now has hewed closely to Temple’s perspective. This is her seeing herself in a weird sexualized way, and it also happens to be the first description of her appearance for the reader as well. First we see her kick ass, then we get to know her breast size. Okay.

Second, Temple has just arrived at a “fortress” full of strangers, one of whom is a creeper. Her response to the gross, possessive way the man behaved toward her is to go look in a mirror and wonder if her breasts are large enough. Color me disturbed.

And what is this “tries to look more like a girl” nonsense? She’s already blond, already has really long eyelashes, already has bright blue eyes. She already looks like glamorous girls she’s seen in old magazines. The only thing I get from this description is that she is emphatically a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl with the body of a skinny model. I’m also left wondering how, exactly, do girls hold themselves? And — the pièce de résistance — why the hell does she want or feel a need to pout? (Like a magazine model I hope, not because the author thinks all girls pout, right?) Unless it’s to emphasize her femininity, lest we think someone would soon attempt to rape an unfeminine woman, or lest we think she didn’t somehow bring it on herself? At the very least, am I the only one who thinks it’s really gross/creepy/disturbing to build up a character’s sexuality shortly before the rape scene we all know is coming? Especially a character who is only fifteen?

And then we get to see what her underwear looks like, because that’s normal. And guys in books constantly note the color and pattern of their boxers, right? Just like they flex in the mirror all the time. And speaking of underwear, of course she doesn’t wear a bra. After all the rest of that passage, it’s hard not to be suspicious of that little detail.

Anyway, naturally Temple must continue to prove her (sexy) toughness, so she goes to hang out with the tough guys (again, almost implying she brings this on herself, in a way). She gambles with them and wins with brassy aplomb (“Any moron can turn a card.”). She’s so Tough with a capital T that one of the guys tells her he thinks she might be “more dangerous than what’s out there,” i.e., the zombies. (I’m still mystified by that exchange, actually.)

In the very next scene she fends off her attacker, him drunk and her reeling from the influence of an Ambien. She wins — she, a fifteen-year-old, against a grown man with a knife. Have your cake (sexy!) and eat it too (she wins!), I guess. It didn’t matter for me by then — I read a little farther but only through sheer dogged unwillingness to let go of my high hopes for this book. In truth I was already lost, back at the mirror scene, when I was thrust out of the story and into a slow-simmering boil of anger.

The rest of the book might be awesome. I’m not going to read it — Bell lost me as a reader, maybe permanently. There are plenty of books out there I can read without getting ranty, so why try reading through my anger and disappointment? Frankly this year has seen enough crap hurled toward women, thanks, and I think I’ll turn my attention elsewhere.

But I had to write this critical, snarky post. I actually never thought I’d write a negative review here — some kind of uneasiness about writing negatively as someone who isn’t really anyone in the literary world. But even as recently as a year ago I might not have noticed that anything was amiss in the mirror scene. I might not have thought how strange it was to note the color and pattern of her underwear. I might not have gotten angry at all — and that’s ultimately why I wrote this. The male gaze, rape culture, and the fallacy of these rape-revenge fantasies are so integrated in mainstream culture that it’s hard to notice them for what they are. I missed out on the feminist theory courses in college; it wasn’t until I dove into the internet and the blogosphere that I began to understand how pronounced and insidious these issues were. I read what other people said they saw in a work of fiction, and now I’ve learned to see it myself. And I can’t un-see it.

Those blog posts helped me to see things that were wrong with my own fiction, bits and pieces of internalized misogyny and the male gaze and rape culture. That’s probably the real reason this pissed me off so much — it was too familiar, too close to what I’d thought was okay as recently as a year ago. It’s not okay to build up the sexuality of a character before someone tries to rape them. It’s weird and wrong, and sends weird and wrong messages. Sex is sex, but rape is not sex. It’s violence. You don’t get to have your cake and eat it too.

Dark, Literary Genre Fiction: A Few Recommendations

You know what’s harder than starting a blog? Finding the gumption to come back to it after unintentionally abandoning it for five months.

Still, it’s been bugging me for a while now that I haven’t gushed about the following books, because they’re all wonderful and it seems a disservice to the authors to keep that wonderfulness to myself. So without further ado:

The Orphan’s Tales by Catherynne M. Valente
I read a lot of speculative fiction, but it had been a long, long time since I read something that transported me away to strange and awesome wonders like these. Even now I have a hard time explaining how it felt to read these books — “like magic” seems too trite, but it’s also true. Grimm’s Fairy tales (the weird, dark ones) meet The Thousand and One Nights and run into feminism on the way to some of the most bizarre and interesting settings I have ever encountered. The characters are complex, the prose is stunning, and the worldbuilding is endlessly deep — it seems like there must be hundreds of other stories we don’t get to hear that do exist somehow, as if this is just the tip of a massive, magical iceberg.

I’m dissolving into mindless gushing here, perhaps, but seriously, look into this book if you like folklore, fairy tales, weird fantasy, literary fantasy, or mind-blowing fiction in general.

In the Woods by Tana French
In the Woods is more literary than many literary novels, and flies with the pace of a thriller, even (or perhaps especially) when detailing the ever-evolving relationship between Rob Ryan and his partner Cassie Maddox. Major and minor characters alike shine with little telling details that make them seem real — thus making their troubles seem real too. I don’t read many mysteries at all, but this one sucked me in from the start. By the end, well, let’s just say I read the last 200 pages all in one day.

Highly recommended if you like literary fiction, mysteries, psychological thrillers, and other dark, thought-provoking stuff.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
This is the second book I’ve read that I would call truly frightening (the first being The Shining, a far more terrifying novel that kept me up at night the second time I read it). It’s a psychological drama with a haunted house twist — and what a house. It’s not that there’s a ghost wandering the halls; no, it’s that the halls themselves are malevolent and dark. The halls themselves speak and groan and try to reach Eleanor, the main character. And Eleanor is not a reliable narrator. She lies often, even to herself, to cover up the truths she can’t face. She lies so often and we are so trapped in her psyche that it’s hard to keep track of what’s really happening, what might really be motivating her fellow housemates. And that warped reality is as terrifying in its own way as the many bumps in the night.

Read it if you like literary horror and haunted houses in particular. Also read The Shining if you haven’t already — just not alone, not at night, and definitely not in a spooky old building.

Horns by Joe Hill
I had previously read Heart-Shaped Box, which I enjoyed but didn’t love, so I was surprised by how drawn into Horns I was — so drawn in that, again, I spent much of a recent Saturday reading the last 180 pages. Inevitably, I found myself comparing it to a Stephen King novel:* Everyman finds himself on the receiving end of a terrible Evil that he must fight off but not without getting nice and bloody first. (Yeah, it’s kind of gory.) But Horns is also delightfully different — more tightly-plotted than a King novel, with fewer voices (only two narrating characters) and more deeply personal stakes. Ig is a great main character, not without flaws but not so flawed you can’t root for him the whole way, and the villain is compelling and disgusting and everything you want a villain to be. The book is almost a character portrait of these two, and also twists around our usual cultural view of good and evil. Is the devil really such a bad guy?

Recommended if you like horror, psychological suspense, and Stephen King novels.

*This is inevitable because Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son.

So there you have it: Four dark but wonderful reads. I didn’t actually set out to make a list of really dark literary genre fiction to recommend — these were just the books that came to mind as being fantastic recent reads. I almost feel I need to add a caveat or explanation: I’m a nice person, I’m a happy person, I read John Greene and Jenny Lawson and, uh, Charles Dickens. But I did listen to the Shutter Island soundtrack while reading The Haunting of Hill House, just to make sure I’d be terrified, so maybe, just maybe, there is something a little wrong with me…

Book Review: The Pattern Scars by Caitlin Sweet

I’m going to start by hazarding a guess that you’ve never heard of Caitlin Sweet, though this is her third novel. I stumbled on her work mostly by accident myself, and even I had no idea — literally none — that she’d just published another book this past fall until I stumbled on the news by accident again.

Sweet writes literary fantasy. Her first two novels, A Telling of Stars and The Silences of Home, are related stories occurring in the same world, though generations apart in time. The first is a personal saga more than an epic one, as a young woman embarks on a journey of revenge that she thinks will be heroic; the second is grander, and is greatly interested in the differences between what really happened and what we all collectively remember (or decide) happened.

But The Pattern Scars is very different from both. Nola is born into terrible poverty, but when her mother discovers she has Othersight — the ability to see the Pattern to come — she sells her to a brothel for a few coins. In Sarsenay, brothels serve two purposes: the usual one and the Otherseeing one, where customers come and pay the seer to tell them a prophecy. Nola is apprenticed to the current seer, Yigranzi, who teaches her about Otherseeing — but not at a pace Nola appreciates.

This greed for knowledge is her downfall, and leads her to trust the promises of a man named Orlo. He is a powerful Otherseer from the castle, aid to the king himself, and he takes Nola from the brothel with promises that she’ll soon become a castle seer herself.

Instead, he traps her in a web of lies and dark deeds that give the novel a horror aesthetic. The plot twists like a nightmare, one with a lot of blood and a lot of darkness. There is so much blood and so much dark subject matter that the book might have been a depressing, dreary, melodramatic mess, except that Sweet handles the story so well. Nola could have become a passive, dull victim of a helpless situation, but she doesn’t — because she never quite gives up, because she has just enough autonomy to keep a few secrets of her own, and because she is no innocent herself.

Sweet strikes a perfect balance with the prose, just enough lyricism and vibrant sensory detail to set the chilling tone, but not enough fancy wordwork to take the reader out of the story. (Though, to be fair, I may have a higher limit for fancy wordwork than others.) The novel is light on worldbuilding because worldbuilding isn’t the point: Character is. Nola tells the story in first person, so we only see those parts of the world that Nola has access to, and her world is very limited. This self-contained setting helps to create the nightmare but it may also be the novel’s weakness, in that some characters come and go without seeming to have lives beyond their interactions with Nola. In the end I think it works, though I am still left with some lingering questions about what some of the secondary characters did when they weren’t anywhere near her.

Final recommendation: A good book for readers who like a dark (as in really dark) character-driven fantasy with more than a dash of horror thrown in. And if the words “literary” and “fantasy” used in conjunction make you as excited as they make me, check out all of Caitlin Sweet’s novels. All are well-reviewed and undersold, and that’s a pity. Here’s hoping The Pattern Scars brings her the recognition she deserves.

Book, Books, More Books!

Several months after purchasing a Kindle, I have to come to terms with the fact that I am and always will be a physical book buyer and lover.

I mean, look. Is that the bookshelf of an ebook devotee?

Books in front of more books!

I and my fellow bibliophiles are always on the lookout for new tomes to grace our overflowing shelves, rather like a pack of hungry dogs looking for the next big meal. This year I found some good ones — and possibly even a couple great ones. (Regrettably, probably none of these are books you haven’t heard of. But if you’re like me sometimes you need six or seven people screaming READ THIS ALREADY before you pick up the book, so here’s hoping this is time six or seven for you!)

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Stuffy British gentlemen magicians sounds sort of dull, actually, but if you add in the Napoleonic War, singing Cathedrals, Faeries of the creepy/evil variety, and charming nineteenth century British prose, things start looking up. Plus, it’s one of the rare 1000-pagers that doesn’t feel long.

The Passage by Justin Cronin

The Passage is what happens when a really good literary author starts telling a story with his daughter and becomes so enrapt by the story that he has no choice but to finish it. Creepy, exciting, and populated with characters you can’t help loving and rooting for. At 800 pages, it’s still not quite long enough. Luckily, there’s a sequel. Unluckily, we have to wait until 2012 to read it.

The Magician King by Lev Grossman

You have to start with The Magicians, of course, as this is the second of a trilogy. Part homage to the genre, part upending of the genre, Grossman applies his usual dry, nerdy wit to telling Quentin’s story with zero heroic embellishment and lots of snappy dialogue. You are forewarned, however: Grossman doesn’t just break your heart once. He lets you put it back together, and then he does it again.

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

This one is a lot of things — blunt, scathing, questioning, stark — but mostly it’s just true. Through a series of apparently unanswered letters to her estranged husband, Eva Katchadourian unwinds the strands of marriage, motherhood, and the “American Dream” that have led her to this life of isolation broken only by visits to her son in juvenile detention.

Mystic River by Dennis Lehane

I have never been a big mystery/thriller reader, and neither Dan Brown or Stieg Larsson  were much help. But Mystic River has renewed my faith in the genre as a whole. Part mystery, part drama, Mystic River unravels slowly away from the story’s initial murder to sink deeply into the many damaged psyches surrounding the victim.

So, what about you? Read any good books this year (or in years past)? Anyone want to rectify the lack of diversity on my list? I think I’ve still got some room on that shelf for a few more.

How Cheap Is Too Cheap?

Yesterday, after I had already written the post about ebooks, Amazon unveiled their devilishly tempting 900 books for $3.99 or less deal through the rest of this month. Real books! Reportedly good books for $0.99! Oh hell, I thought, I heard that book is good, and it’s a buck, so what the heck? I won’t even notice. Suppose the book isn’t any good — who cares?

I mean, meh, they’re just books. My hard-earned money should be poured into other things, like new shoes, not more books, so if I can scoop a bunch up for a buck I’m winning, right? Amazon is the one who suffers from the price break — it’s just a ploy to sell more Kindles — so I don’t have to feel like I’ve deprived the authors of something. We’re Capitalists, aren’t we? So gobble ‘em up while the getting is good and Damn the Man while we’re at it. As long as we save some bucks who cares what else is happening! It’s all about the $$$.

Yikes.

When I buy a book for $0.99 — which I haven’t done, so this is hypothetical — I can’t help feeling that I have deprived the author of something. I’ve cheapened the value of the book and my experience reading said book. I’ve made it not matter whether I get a lot out of it. I’ve made reading a shrug, deprived it of even a glance back to see where we stand.

I mean, it’s $0.99! Two lukewarm lemonades from the kids on the side of the road! One gumball from the big gumball machine! Significantly less than my gelati from Rita’s that I will consume in a matter of minutes as opposed to the hours it will take me to read my book! It’s nothing! Which means, when I buy the book, I will have bought it for nothing. And the book’s worth is — nothing.

There’s a value in saying something has value, isn’t there? What does the work I do mean if the work others do means nothing?

I suppose I could just tell myself I’ll only buy the dollar books if I would have spent the 10 or more on them to begin with. But if I really wanted that book, wouldn’t I have already bought it? (None of these 900 books are new, as far as I can tell.) But that isn’t the point. The idea has been planted, for better or for worse: books should be cheap, way cheaper than they used to be. Which is possibly a good thing in the end, but I can’t help eyeing it suspiciously — since it is, after all, just a ploy to sell more Kindles.

Then again, they already got me. So who am I to talk? I’ll just keep waffling back and forth, reading print and ebooks, covering my credit card with purchases for books, books, and more books. That’s the thing to keep in mind, I guess. No matter the cost, no matter the format, they’re still books to read and love.

P.S. And please, if you disagree, feel free to tell me so! Like I said, I keep waffling. I’m less convinced of this post than I was yesterday when I wrote it, but I’m still curious if anyone else has the same thoughts. (Probably not though. I am aware of my own insane foibles.)