The Distinction of Literature: part one of a series

A couple years ago, at my local independent bookstore, I picked up The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age by Robert Alter. I already admired Alter greatly for his contributions to the study of the Bible as literature (and have been lusting, if that’s the word I want, after his new translation of the Hebrew scriptures), so I snapped this book up thinking it might be fun.

Not surprisingly, it’s turned out to be a book I return to engage with again and again, and not only because it was written shortly before I started my undergraduate and then graduate studies in English literature. Alter’s characterization of the critical scene at that time is amusingly familiar. I’ve been out of the academy for 20 years, and this book was written 30 years ago, so there’s a sense in which I’m picking up a conversation with Alter 30 years late. But in another sense, the “ideological” age Alter is writing about is no longer just a description of the critical scene; and more than that, Alter’s treatment of the components of literary skill has worn well enough to be perenially useful.

The chapters of Alter’s book, in fact, are useful enough that I’d had it in mind to write a blog post or two talking about one or more of them in connection with my own approach both to reading and writing. But a recent reread of the book has prompted me to think I might want more of a series than that. So this is a post addressing the basic argument Alter delineates in his introduction and first chapter; other posts will tackle the functions of literary skill and merit that he identifies in other chapters.

Here’s a rough-faced summary of the argument. Alter asserts that although literary studies in academia promised to benefit from the structuralist and post-structuralist theory that challenged the ivory-tower, New-Critical style of literary criticism, by the time of Alter’s writing the study of literature has wound up in a boondoggle of doing things to texts for ideological purposes, scarcely ever reading them on any terms but polemical ones, and as far as Alter can tell, never recognizing or enjoying literary art at all.

He’s not exactly wrong. When I was an undergraduate, and even more in graduate school, I could usually be counted on to provide the least ideologically sophisticated responses to the texts on the syllabus. To say what the reading of the book has done to you, rather than demonstrate your proficiency at doing things to it, was at best precious and droll. But I couldn’t stop doing it; and that may be the true motivating factor (besides, of course, money) why I did not persist in academia after getting my MA.

So I don’t really have a quarrel with Alter’s overarching argument. But the last time I looked this book up on Amazon, its reviews had a lot of praise along the lines of the phrase “breath of fresh air” from backlashy types who were all too eager not only to criticize the ideological boondoggle but to heap scorn on what Harold Bloom liked to call “the School of Resentment” — “politically”-motivated scholars whose minority status made them delicate snowflakes in need of crushing with the shovel of reality. But scorn is not Alter’s project at all — and so this blog post is to deal with the distinctions that need to be made.

“All study of literature must emerge from and return to reading,” Alter says in his introduction, and follows it with a statement of the main theme: “Literary language is an intricate, inventively designed vehicle for setting the mind in restless pleasing motion, which in the best of cases may give us a kind of experiential knowledge relevant to our lives outside reading.” He is critical of the idea that the literary canon, loosely conceived, is nothing more than a vehicle of hegemony for congratulating itself, without taking Bloom’s tack of rejecting all criticism of the canon itself.

Alter only mentions Bloom a couple of times, and I resent (heh, see what I did there) doing so more than once in a short blog post, but it’s like shooting one big sturgeon in a barrel, really; it’s not to be helped. Bloom built his academic brand on the idea that great literature is so because its writers have engaged the tradition with serious intent and succeeded by overcoming their own idiosyncrasies to become, as Alter says, “relevant,” to broaden the scope of what might be called universally human. That most women and other minorities have failed to do this is, for Bloom but not for Alter, merely incidental. Alter has no axe to grind here; he just wants to read a damn book and talk about why it’s good.

But I don’t think Alter entirely achieves a distinction between the operation of the canon, “the impulse of self-recapitulation” that keeps the tradition going as a recognizably literary endeavor, and the ontology of the canon, the thing that makes a text worth recognizing as literary art. He warns the reader that the examples he will choose to illustrate elements of literary skill are not diverse because he wants immediately recognizable texts to hand for his discussion. The unfortunate phrase “affirmative action quotas” crept in there at one point. I can distinguish this from Bloom’s project of apotheosizing the Western Canon, but it just points up the problem that has not, as we know, gone away at all.

Let’s take as an example Ann Leckie’s groundbreaking SFF novel Ancillary Justice. It became a bestseller on its publication in 2014 and won the Arthur C. Clarke and Hugo Awards, and thereby was admitted to a canon, if not “the Western Canon” of literary art. It also drew a massive backlash that went on to affect how the Hugo Awards themselves were conducted in the future.

At contention was, among other things, Leckie’s use of a single pronoun to refer to all human persons in the novel, a pronoun that was used without distinctions and meant clearly to be universal in its comprehension of human identity. The pronoun was she. Now, there were (and are) plenty of thoroughgoing misogynists ready to state baldly that females and the feminine are representative of nothing but themselves, that to truly denote universal humanity you need a man. But this is an idea that is thoroughly sedimented in us all; and Leckie’s book required every reader to grapple with it.

Ancillary Justice‘s detractors used the argument, tellingly, that the book really had no literary merit and also no true popularity except among people with an ideological agenda. It could neither be valued nor enjoyed. Apparently, the pleasures of reading Ann Leckie’s book in an ideological age are either 100% or zero.

I’m pretty sure Alter would see the problem with this. And the question must be asked: can we appreciate the “high fun of literary art” of a text like Ancillary Justice if we have not already entertained the idea that the experiences and insights of women and other minorities can stand as relevant and representative, without asterisks or qualifications, of the human condition that art is made to speak to? I can’t help but think of how even after instituting blind auditions, women still weren’t getting into orchestras…until carpet was put down to hide the telltale clack of high heels when the auditioner came in. Then, amazingly, the acceptance rate quickly reached parity.

Without throwing Alter’s argument out the window wholesale, I would say that interrogating the canon(s) of literary art is not just a parity project but vital to the development of the very functions of skill and merit that Alter would like to see recentered in our minds when we pick up a book. And it is with those reservations that I appreciate the chapters that follow.

So stay tuned for more in this series on such topics as character, style, structure, and perspective. And ignore the acacia trees that grew overhead while I was writing this post, heh.

Smashwords sale!

Good morning, cats and kittens! The summer solstice (or winter solstice, for those of you in the Antipodes) has come upon us, and if you’re not being burnt or drowned or jackbooted by Nazi thugs, you’re probably headed for the beach (or similar cozy spot of your choice). In which case you’ll want to nourish your soul with a radical, epic tale of postdystopic courtesy.

And you’re in luck: Ryswyck will be listed in this year’s Summer/Winter Sale at Smashwords. From July 1 to July 31, you can get Ryswyck for 50% off (that’s $1.50, folks), along with other great e-book titles that will be on sale all month. This automatic coupon applies at the Smashwords site only; for other distributors, the price remains the same. You should definitely take advantage of the sale at Smashwords, but if for some reason you’re committed to buying your e-books elsewhere, you can still benefit: I’ve extended the promotional launch price of $2.99 for another month. After July 31, the regular price of $3.99 will kick in across the board.

Why am I doing this? Well, let’s be real, I like it when people buy my book. Money is nice. I like money. And getting a return on my investment, on all its levels, is a worthy goal and firmly in my sights. But the reader who buys the book gets something even better than that: they get, at the least, a pleasurable reading experience they can repeat any time they like. And possibly they even get food for the soul, in a magic jar that never runs out. You can’t really put a price on that.

That’s the artistic endeavor in a nutshell: to brighten reality for as many people as possible. And don’t we all need our realities brightened?

So if you haven’t read Ryswyck yet, by all means take advantage of the opportunity this summer. And if you have read it, be sure and put up a review at Goodreads or Amazon or Apple or wherever you bought it. That way, my characters’ future readership won’t have to take my word for it!

Review: Jodi Taylor, Just One Damned Thing After Another

[crossposted from Goodreads; slightly spoilery, caveat lector]

Just what it says on the tin.

A book club choice that I’m finally catching up on. Rather wish I’d read it last winter when it was being discussed — there were fun things to talk about in this one. Also wish I could give it 3 1/2 stars, as I definitely liked it better than The Japanese Lover and Where’d You Go, Bernadette? which were also book club reads.

In fact, I almost gave it four stars, but this book just fell enough short of the admiration I have for Ann Leckie’s recent books, the Rivers of London series, and a plurality of Terry Pratchett’s books — though if you like those, you should certainly try this.

The first-person protagonist is a firecracker (or maybe something slightly less benign), with a snarky voice and the most towering capacity for mayhem this side of Miles Vorkosigan. The story was compelling enough to finish in one sitting (the plot, being more or less solid events from start to finish, definitely lends itself to this), but that very sense of undifferentiated urgency left me without much of a grasp on the story, much like when I was a kid in gym shaking a parachute, losing hold of my edge, and fumbling to catch it again. I can’t tell if this is a feature or a bug.

[Mild spoiler] Meanwhile, the characters our heroine makes enemies with turn out to be the bad guys — what are the odds? This sort of thing really annoys me in principle, but in practice this book was saved by the fact that Jodi Taylor is very good at spotting difficulties and lampshading them. (Nothing wrong with a little lampshading! I’ve been known to use the technique myself.) Max, who apparently comes from an unspeakably abusive childhood, second-guesses herself when working out who the villians are, and even gives them more credit than she should precisely because she doesn’t like them. Very believably, she does not trust her own trust meter, with widely mixed results.

Similarly, most of the characters are types, which is handy in a book as full of “damned things” as this is — but if the story gets round to them, they act interestingly within their types, though in some cases less believably than Max.

The emotional throughline of the story was very compelling, and would have been more so if there’d been more dynamic range, but there was never time for anything like that, nor even to grieve for the characters who got killed, many of them gone just as one gets to know them.

These things annoyed me a good deal, which, as I said, is ultimately a point in this book’s favor because it was the opposite of “meh” — so I don’t wish I had my Sunday afternoon back. And isn’t that what we ask of a book first and foremost?

I got mad and wrote a poem

Sometimes that happens. I can’t avoid every headline, damn it.

What is Sin?

I can point you to what catechism you choose
Or I can tell you this. The unnamed man
Who vandalized and killed the Holy Thorn
Distilled an act of speech with just one aim:
To hurt its lovers’ hearts. In actual fact
The worst things ever said to me were things
I heard said to my mother. To profane
A thing someone holds holy is to take
Their soul in effigy and burn it, so it does
Not matter then if you were only careless.
Paradise has been wiped off the map.
The inferno’s wave swept over, and the still-
Frame frames of burned-out cars mid-flight
Still sign their silent testament of ash
To what carelessness means. Do you hear me?
But it gets worse. All I can do is write
A verse as blank as my expression is
On contact with the boasted atrocities
Done in my name. They would, quite literally,
Destroy the world sooner than have to see
People they hate escape their suffering.
The people they hate are holy. Nero burns
His tiki torches in Charlottesville, and thinks
He’s good, cause Snopes debunked that faulty tale
That said he fiddled while Rome burned. He’s not.
Those torches were people, and now they’re witnesses.
Thick clouds of witness boil across the sun.
Don’t spit your decalogues at suffering souls,
Don’t pour contempt on how they name themselves,
Don’t roadblock their escapes from cruelties,
Don’t jeer and scoff, lest you turn and find yourself
An arsonist, or an idiot with a match.

Monday gallimaufry

Yes, even when I’m on writing sabbath this blog is 100% genuwyne quality content. Starting with thanks to the folks who sent me recs for summer reading — I’ve ordered a few things and look forward to charging my Kindle frequently.

One author I like to collect in hard copy, meanwhile, is Ann Leckie, and since I’ve had a critical mass of recs for her new fantasy novel The Raven Tower, I went ahead and bought it to read over the weekend. I was not disappointed. One of the things I appreciate so much about Leckie — apart from the commitment to pushing the frontiers of how we treat gender in SFF and the interrogation of domination systems in fine, spare prose — is the internal consistency of her inventions. Every McGuffin has a firm solidity, every world has a margin outside the frame of the story. And she knows how to surprise. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy a story written in the second person — strictly speaking, second person isn’t really a POV, as it assumes (as this story does) a first-person narrator to focus on that second person. The character in focus is a trans man; and Leckie is an example to any writer wanting to do representation right, because that fact, while it presents complications in some situations, isn’t what the story is about, nor does Eolo have anything less than an individual take on his own identity.

I also appreciate reading the kind of story that I also prefer to write — one in which the final reveal is not a sprung surprise but a culmination of what is in plain view. The Raven Tower, perhaps appropriately, has a plot like granite — disparate events being gradually drawn and fused by great pressures — and the final tableau is satisfying as any parable should be, with a stone-like chill to tickle the reader’s spine with. Altogether I would say that for me this book was not as life-changing a read as Ancillary Justice, but easier to bond with than Provenance. I give it an unreserved rec.

In other news, a friend from my community, on hearing that I’d taken up photography, offered to send me an extra camera of his — gratis, as he was in the process of decluttering his house. To my shocked pleasure, what arrived in a box for me the following week was a very fine never-used Lumix with an all-in-one telephoto lens. I’ve been practicing with it, and went out on Saturday to photograph fountains, with really satisfying results.

The camera also has a great capacity for macro shots — I’ve been putting selected photos on Facebook as I take them.

The real photographer in our family, by the way, is my sibling Sam, who took the photo I chose for my author avatar in this and other venues. Sam and I are planning to start a podcast centering on our artistic fields, media criticism, and representation, with (probably) a healthy dose of snark. I’ve been considering launching a newsletter in the future, so podcasts could certainly serve as Genuwyne Quality Content for subscribers, along with easter egg scenes, notes on public appearances (assuming I make any), and other such things as I would be less likely to post on this blog.

I also read an article on the virtues of making a book trailer, which, as I told Erica, “sounded like fun, and by fun I mean a money- and time-sink that results in a disappointing product,” so although it was a little tempting to browse royalty-free music files, I scrapped the idea.

One thing I did make, for my amusement and office white noise, was a new composite generator on the MyNoise site. The Ryswyck one I made six months ago is still nice, but it’s rather stationary in nature. This one I call The Defender — it has a little more drive to it, and makes me think of Speir and her training routines.

Welp, that’s all the news that’s fit to print from these parts.

“If it’s not fun for the whole psyche then what’s the point?”

Musing this evening on the perils of self-censorship. People I know have started to read Ryswyck and are telling me where they are in the story. They make brief comments or ask me questions: “I’ll be interested to see how you develop the concept of undefendedness,” said one, and, “Am I right that this takes place in a sort of hypothetical Britain-like country?” another buttonholed me at church to ask. “I’m two-thirds of the way through,” said a friend last night, and proceeded to tell me what was happening with each of the characters as if they were people we both knew.

This is an ongoing source of quiet amazement for me. When I first thought up the story that would become this novel, I was convinced I couldn’t write it — and more than that, I was convinced I shouldn’t. A snippet from the first blog post about it:

Spring has definitely sprung around here. There is a profusion of daffodils everywhere, we’ve cut pink-blooming boughs from the peach tree for the chapel, and the mint patch has begun to sprout. And, I’ve been making myself up stories again. I won’t write the one I’ve been dreaming out, because it is just too idtastic: it follows two characters through a co-ed military school that has a reputation for turning out brilliant officers but has the air of a mystery cult, and for good reason. There’s lots of courtesy and kindness, and also a great deal of sex and violence. This poses a problem, not for me, but for the Sir William — now Lord — Rees-Mogg in my head who prefers that we keep up our standards.

Still and all, I reflect that most of the stories I’ve made up over the years come from my id originally. I think I’m supposed to be ashamed of this, but I really just can’t manage it: it seems more to me like the id-origins of my stories are the grubby roots and the stories rise from them aboveground as plants.

But one does prefer the aboveground plant to be what’s noticed, I must say.

(March 15, 2012)

Fortunately for the book, I only needed the slightest encouragement to write it anyway, which my friends were only too happy to provide. It’s one thing to know Joanna Russ’s list of ways women’s writing is suppressed: it’s quite another to realize that you’re doing most of the suppressing for them. And still another to stop doing it.

That’s the miracle of art, though: a divine stubbornness that doesn’t feel miraculous in the least. A cussedness, a grubby stamping on the shovel’s shoulder, digging up that flowerbed. From a dreamed-out story outline in the rough, to a finished project one is proud of: that is worth all the slogging in the middle.

I suppose the reverse benefit of such difficulty is that when you’ve finished the project, you can enjoy the result and stick it to The Man in one move.

Fun for the whole psyche, indeed.

Worldbuilding: representative sexualities

One of the questions I got from my beta readers when editing the manuscript of Ryswyck, and one which I expect to get from readers from time to time now the book is in the wild, is a theme with variations: what are the sexualities of the characters, and how are they understood in the ‘verse? Are the questionable choices of — well, Barklay in particular — a function of sexuality, or of something else? Where does Douglas land on the spectrum, if there is one? Where does Speir? Just how friendly is your worldbuilding to non-het points of view?

Since it’s Pride month, I might as well address the topic now. And comment, incidentally, on the reactionary situation that has developed since I first conceived Ryswyck about seven years ago. And if I’m going to talk about the worldbuilding of my ‘verse, I’ll want to talk about the backstory of our own. (Those of you who don’t need the history lesson, bear with me for a couple paragraphs.)

Until 150 years ago, we didn’t have any descriptive words for what it meant to have non-heterosexual desires and experiences. We had a handful of extremely ethnically specific words, and we had a host of pejoratives. Western society, for hundreds of years, had nothing but a reified concept of human sexuality that excluded all but a certain range of heterosexual points of view. Anything in reality outside that range fell short of being human: it was bent, twisted, wicked, sick, or broken.

Then in 1869 the word homosexual was coined. It was intended to be a scientific/medical description of a certain pathology. But this had consequences. The word and concept of heterosexuality then needed to be invented. With that duality it was possible to talk about sexualities on academic terms and in public forums. People who identified themselves as homosexual began to have a way to talk about themselves without mirroring a reflex of disgust. They started reclaiming the pejoratives for their own use; more and more experiences and identities came into the light and were named, so that by the end of the 20th century we had what we call alphabet soup, and more descriptive terms for sexual and gender identity are coined and put into circulation all the time.

Some people have started to scoff at this. “This is ridiculous, we have L, G, B, T, Q, A, I, WTF, BBQ — where is this going to end?” I’m glad you asked that question, Imaginary Scoffer. It seems to me that the most reasonable and moral trajectory of this process would be to re-reify the concept of “human” sexuality, this time to include the increasingly obvious multiplicity of ways to experience love and desire. People could use descriptive terms for themselves without also having to press those terms into service as polemic, to defend themselves against the backlash of the heteronormative point of view.

But what’s happening instead right now is something I think very sad and short-sighted. There are some non-het groups who can’t or won’t conceive of a reunified human sexuality, and have turned on those whose identities resist definite labels. “You Bs, you Ts, you Is, whatever you are — you aces and aros, take your queer umbrella and get out! You belong with the enemy: the straights!”

None of this was on my radar when I was worldbuilding for Ryswyck. All I wanted, as Kameron Hurley saw, was to write a story without having to say, “Well, as you know, Bob, Douglas is pansexual and homoromantic!” So I invented context for him, and for Speir, and for Barklay and Stevens and Cameron and Rose and Corda and Darnel and Orla: context in which my characters were free of the pressure to see their identities as essentially polemic. The society they live in isn’t perfect, but it has advanced in this one area in part because the communities are small and everyone needs each other; needs to be able to trust one another, whatever their identity might be. The people who get to know Douglas come to know that he might like to go to bed with a wide variety of people, but the person he falls in love with is overwhelmingly likely to be male. Nothing else is needed. Everyone gets to say who they are. Everyone gets to rest.

But our interaction with such a story is unfortunately not simple. There are some authors and showrunners and creators who resist using labels for the reasons I sketch above, because they want to upgrade the whole context in which characters relate to one another. And then there are the authors and showrunners and creators who resist using labels because they want plausible deniability in case straight people get…het up about “forced” representation.

Nobody forced me to write from a non-het-centric point of view; I just did. I have enough age and experience now that I don’t feel my own identity as inherently polemic. I’ve done myself the same courtesy I deeply believe in doing others: letting them say who they are. Even if I think they’re wrong, or problematic (a word that covers a host of sins), or merely tiresome.

Everything doesn’t have to be a fucking polemic.

I know, I know: the battle lines being drawn right now are not imaginary. The Nazis have crawled out from under their rocks, and brazen cruelties march across every television chiron, and it’s hotter in Alaska right now than it is in Kansas City, and I-29 opened for five minutes before going under again.

But what is speculative fiction for if not for featuring to ourselves a way of being that is recontextualized, recentered, reimagined — while still being ourselves? All this noise may cover it up from time to time. But people are always people. And courtesy is still a thing.

And it’s time our context got an upgrade.

Gives a new meaning to “shock and awe”

Guess what! I found out this morning that Ryswyck has been included in the Summer’s Most Anticipated reads on Apple Books! You can check out the iTunes link on apple.co/summerbooks!

(I admit when I saw the email from the nice man at Smashwords I did a little cursory checking before I clicked any links. Indie author, sophistication in phishing, Occam’s Razor, &c. But it’s legit. O.O)

Exciting!

Rec me, Amadeus! or, the Author on sabbath

Well, I’m back.

Once a year the religious community I belong to gets together for an annual meeting, in which business is accomplished, Eucharists are celebrated, songs are sung, and wine corks are popped. This year we were at the Sisters of St. Joseph Carondelet retreat center in St. Louis. The century-plus-old monastery is right on the river, and of course at the moment it’s even more right on the river than usual: all the rivers in the broad vicinity are vast expanses of opaque and purling water, draining as best it can toward the distant Gulf of Mexico. I had booked a train trip out there, but due to diverted freight traffic Amtrak was forced to bus us to and from our destinations: cue me making a face. I’ve actually seriously considered abandoning my usual stance of recreational complaining and writing a Strongly Worded Letter lamenting our collective priorities when it comes to infrastructure. Of course, I can do both.

Disappointing non-train trips aside, it was great to reconnect with my companions, to breathe back life into the round of daily prayers, to sit and talk late into the evening with popcorn and snacks and wine, and to remember what is so valuable about holding our lives in common. Our collective charism is an undergirding to what we do in the places where we are, and we all wish for more than one chance a year to refresh that knowledge.

Now I’m back at my desk and back to work, and making my plans for the next months. Launching Ryswyck was six months of really hard work, and slowly but surely it is paying off; but I’m definitely ready to recharge.

So I think I’m going to put aside the ‘verse for a month — not do any writing, or any stewing about not writing — and read. When writers who are just starting out ask me for advice about how to develop their writing, I agree with all the authors who say: read. Read a lot or read a little, read good books or read bad ones, read people you know and people you don’t know (and that goes for both authors and POV characters), read in familiar genres and in genres you’ve never touched.

I believe in this advice wholeheartedly: more than half of what I know about writing comes from studying my favorite books — or any books — and working out how the authors did it. (The other half comes from failing again and failing better, because you have to do that too.) But. While I am in the actual act and process of writing, I just can’t spare much headspace for consuming new books. While I am writing, most of my reading consists of making dinner and then opening a Vorkosigan omnibus to a random page, or something similar.

So when I’ve finished a project, or a stage in a project, I’ve started taking reading sabbaticals, seeking out books I haven’t read a billion times and opening new thought-territory. Plus, it pays to keep up with one’s field.

While I was on the road for work, I read the first book and half the second of the Steerswoman series by Rosemary Kirstein, and have been enjoying that very much. So I’ll get back to those. And then there are always the monthly reads for my book club, which always comprehend a great variety.

But I want recs. What are you reading right now? I’d like to read something new, or something old brought back from the margins. Something a middle-aging white Midwesterner might not run across on her own; something that has a damn good story to it. Or: something you want to read but haven’t got to yet.

That sort of thing. Or as my sister likes to say: Okay, recs, go.