Review: Arkady Martine, A Memory Called Empire

I admit my reading is a bit peripatetic. So often do I clamber wearily through my weekly schedule without the energy to do anything more than open up, say, a Vorkosigan omnibus to some random place so I can have something to read while eating dinner, that it takes a critical mass of recs and/or an opportunity of mood to pick up something new.

This weekend, however, I haled my neurodivergent ass over to B&N and picked up A Memory Called Empire to read while consuming egg drop soup and dumplings. I read four chapters and let the remains of my dinner get cold — and the tea, too. Then I took the book home and read the rest of it in one gulp.

It’s not a short book by any means, but it does read very quickly, and the pacing is snappy without being frenetic or irrational. This is my second court-intrigue novel in a month — and strangely, like The Goblin Emperor, it involves a murder mystery, where the mystery is not really about who committed the murder as it is about why the murder was committed and the serious implications of the aftermath for the succession of the throne. Are a lot of court-intrigue stories like this? I’m not sure I’ve read enough of them to discern a pattern.

In any event, this is a particularly ambitious story. Apart from the court intrigue plot, Martine introduces us to a highly mannered and poetry-inflected world via a foreigner, the POV character who is the new ambassador to the Teixcalaan Empire’s central planet. Mahit was chosen as the hasty replacement of her murdered predecessor in no small part because she had fallen in love with the empire’s literary tradition and similarly struggles with the simultaneous insult of being branded a barbarian and desire not to be one. We find out all about the meaningful details of dress and mode of language and apparent alliance through her eyes. To add to this bewildering sensory onslaught, each chapter is headed by epigraphs from Teixcalaanli poetry, or history, or correspondence offstage and out of the POV character’s ken. It’s a lot to take in, and without the snappy pace of the plot itself, it might have been too much.

The characters, too, help carry the burden of introducing such a vivid and complex world. They are nearly all of them memorable individuals that have arcs of growth and nuance as the story unfolds. But if I want to be honest, the parts I want to reread — the parts I have gone back to reread, several times — are the parts where Mahit interacts with her imago memory implant, a technology of her home station whereby the experience and skill of previous generations is grafted onto the new people in their roles, with great psychological care taken to integrate them with their predecessors’ personalities. Not to spoil a major plot point, but Mahit’s relationship with Yskandr, the former ambassador whose murder she is investigating — hampered by sabotage early on in the conflict between her home and the Empire — became the heart of the story for me. I found the concept fascinating and exceptionally well-drawn, and I particularly loved the theme behind the idea, of being seen and understood and not alone, with all the intimacy and peril that implies. That, too, chimes somewhat with a theme in The Goblin Emperor, though the implications are not at all drawn out in the same way.

I gave this a solid four stars on Goodreads and would rec it unreservedly for people who like the kinds of things I’ve described. It was hard for me to not read it like a writer, which I’m not sure is a fault at all, but it did put a small remove in my own intimacy with the story, and in any case it was so well written that it didn’t suffer by that undercurrent of examination. Definitely worth the purchase.

The Love Between Enemies

Somehow, while I wasn’t looking, I became a Fandom Old. I mean, notwithstanding that the last three years have aged me about ten, somehow all the frivolous jargon of internet fandom when it was new is now, little by little, becoming museum pieces.

One such phrase is “bulletproof kink.” It used to be a catch-all term for any trope that reliably gets the user’s attention, whether it had anything to do with romantic/sexual relationships or not. I don’t see it being used anymore, and that’s a shame, because I don’t know of any replacement that really gets at that sense of idiosyncratic enthusiasm which is the whole point of participating in fandom in the first place.

All of which is to say that I have a bulletproof kink that has driven my interests since I was very small, and that is the trope of enemies who love one another.

There are a lot of things I don’t mean by that. I can enjoy stories about enemies becoming friends, enemies becoming lovers, or friends/lovers who have to be enemies for some reason, or enemies who are forced to be allies by some emergent situation. And I’m definitely not alone in enjoying such dynamics between characters.

But what I love in any of these stories is not at all based on the transmuting of enmity into something else. What I hunger for are stories about the love between enemies as a specific form of love in itself.

A love like that can manifest in all sorts of ways. Like “I will kill/insult you but by God I will not stand there and let anybody else kill/insult you” is one. Or, a series of encounters in which the enemies speak on a level of mutual respect even as they work uncompromisingly to thwart one another. G.K. Chesterton understood this love: the entire plot of The Ball and the Cross turns on it. There were some aspects of it in the Harry-Snape relationship in the Harry Potter series, but I was disappointed in my hope that there would be an endgame scene where they were forced reluctantly to fight back to back. I got one episode of Father Brown where he and Inspector Sullivan had to work together, but it was totally robbed at the end by an erasure of Sullivan’s character development; Chesterton would not have approved!

Catch Me if You Can and its daughter-story White Collar are favorites of mine because of this dynamic; and, now that I think about it, I could go down the whole list of books and shows I’ve made fanwork for and point out how a spark of this dynamic drew my interest. But the point is, a love between enemies exists not in spite of the enmity, but as a function of it. It is not a comfortable love; nor is it a destabilizing one. If I had my druthers the proportion of books and movies driven by this trope would dwarf that of media full of squabbles between people who call themselves friends and lovers.

So naturally, any story I write is going to have this trope in it, in spades. And probably the other suits as well. And I’m just getting started. I’ve been in the process of storyboarding Ryswyck‘s sequel, and the most fun lately has been hatching in the dynamic not only between Speir and du Rau, but Speir and Selkirk as well. Love for enemies is definitely Speir’s jam.

So if, like me, you have a bulletproof kink for the love between enemies, I’m here with my scoop, dishing it out.

Turning point books

It’s the dog days of summer, which I suspect to be an astrological expression but in my case means that lying around rereading books is much more my speed than anything else. So I thought I would respond to a meme going around FB and do a post about books that are meaningful to me. Specifically, I thought I’d write about fiction books that entered my life at certain watershed moments and stuck with me to the present.

Richard Adams, Watership Down

Let’s start with the earliest. My recollection is that a relative rented the movie for a cousin’s birthday party, thinking hey, animated film, should be good for a kids’ sleepover, right? I was the only person left finishing it. So when I was in a used bookstore some time later and ran across the paperback, I picked it up. I carried that book around with me everywhere I went for a year. When my mother took us to get our Social Security cards, the person at the desk demanded a second form of ID for me, so I ran out to the car and got Watership Down and showed her my name on the Garfield bookplate sticker inside the cover, carefully inscribed with a felt-tip calligraphy pen. I no more understand why that was sufficient than why they demanded more ID in the first place, but okay. Sometime in the future Richard Adams’s book will figure in a post I plan to make about POV, but for now I’ll just say that it has what have turned out to be some of my enduringly favorite tropes: found family, loyalty to unlikely leaders, deceptions with cover identities, journeys, uncanny connections between individuals. And stories. It’s the only book I know of where the epigraphs consistently add something to the text and the glossary is not a vast annoyance. Of all the books that could have found me at a formative time, this one was a great piece of good fortune.

G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday

I have talked to people who read this book hoping to like it and were disappointed. I was fortunate; I approached it from the opposite headspace, because it was a book I had to read for a graduate seminar on Edwardian literature. You’re not supposed to like books that you have to read, but I found myself crying with laughter when Syme starts planning the exact dialogue by which he is going to challenge an enemy to a duel. And it had an even more profound effect than that. Syme, as Thursday, sets out to topple the fearsome Sunday, precisely, he says, “because I am afraid of him. And one should never leave in the universe anything of which one is afraid.” There’s something so quixotic about Chesterton in general, but the idea of going up to strike God in the mouth changed something in my viewpoint forever; revealed to me the utter safety of expressing my anger in the presence of the divine. This is not something I would have discovered in my environment up to that point: I had never experienced anger, my own or anyone else’s, as anything but chaos and peril. I don’t know where I’d be, spiritually, without this book.

Connie Willis, To Say Nothing of the Dog

I could have chosen for this spot another book, like The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, a comfort read that introduced me to online fandom and some of my oldest friends. It was on the RUSS-L book discussion email list that I heard about TSNOTD, and many other enduring favorites, like the Lord Peter Wimsey series. I could have put Gaudy Night on here, which opened up a world that is small in itself but from which you can see everything — all the kingdoms of this world and the glory of them. I could have put Doomsday Book on here, which I read much later and which unlocked a great grief that I had been unable to access. But this is the book that I referenced for all my online handles for the next fifteen years, the book that reconciled me with chaos by making me laugh. Connie Willis can write Very Serious, and she can write Very Slight, but this one strikes the perfect knife-edge balance. It’s brilliant and awesome and, for good and ill, is more and more of an AU to our world, but it remains a needed reference point.

Charles Williams, Descent Into Hell

Let’s just say it: Charles Williams is the most difficult of all the Inklings to read. None of his books are long, but they are full of sentences so intensely calibrated to get at spiritual states of being that one has to put down the book and recover from the brain-ache for a while. Descent Into Hell is no different; in fact it may be the most impenetrable of Williams’s books, but at the encouragement of the friend who recced it to me, I persevered with it and was deeply rewarded. Somehow it addressed things in me that I had forgotten to hope could ever be articulated — nameless fears, unphysical joys, simple loves. And of course I wound up shamelessly stealing the Doctrine of Substitutionary Love for Ryswyck. If Williams has a fault, it’s an over-reliance on masculinity and femininity as essential archetypes; but he’s able to see and name so much else with astounding accuracy that I can forgive him that with this book in particular.

Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice

I’ve already said stuff about Leckie and Ancillary Justice on this blog, so I won’t repeat myself. I was too shy to go up and talk to her at her booth when Worldcon was in Kansas City, which is a shame as I’m not a huge con-goer and may not get another chance. But the cumulative effect of reading this trilogy coincided with a process in which I finally understood the not-brokenness of my human instrument. For many years I had suffered under a debilitating — and highly gendered — suspicion of myself as incapable of right perception and possibly even evil at bottom. Events unrelated to this book led me to quietly unravel that mesh of beliefs; and so when I read a book in which all humans were referred to as “she,” I understood the revelation that I don’t have to step outside myself to be representative of humanity, or perceive its essence, or write about it. Oh, these were all things I knew intellectually, but there’s something about taking them in in story form that sets them off in living color. Not to mention more of my favorite tropes: there’s a vast amount of hurt/comfort in this series, along with the found family, non-romantic love, and unlikely leaders.

I could do a different post with all different books that I love for other reasons, but these are books that I met at important nodes of my life and which stick with me even to this day.

I aten’t dead

Such used to be a favorite heading for when people posted to their LiveJournals after an unexpected hiatus. I found it amusing even before I knew the context, but of course now that I have read an appreciable amount of Discworld stories about Granny Weatherwax, it’s even more so.

The author in all her convalescent gravitarse.

Of course, to switch fandoms for a moment, I didn’t exactly have time for being even Partially Dead, but gastroenteric infections are no respecter of to-do lists. At least I got rested up from my adventures in two different emergency departments in time to write the sermon I was slated to give today!

I’m now feeling better and oddly pain-free, so perhaps I may post something this week in between catching up on my bullet journal and triaging my work email.

Meanwhile, I would just like to note my gratitude for the kindnesses shown to me by friends — beyond expectation in some cases — and even by people I don’t know, like the nice person in Panera who brought me a blueberry muffin for the road when I was packing up after finishing my sermon. For the nurse who covered me in warm blankets and the doctor who listened attentively to my case. Nobody’s obliged to be hospitable.

But it sure does brighten the universe when they are.

Saturday gallimaufry

Here I am, on a Saturday morning, with cat paralysis, in an idle mood. So here are some idle thoughts.

Authors in bagel shops getting coffee

It was very fortunate that I was slated to host the book club this month, as I needed some kind of impetus to unearth my kitchen from, let’s be honest, months of neglect. It’s…still a work in progress, but reasonably presentable. Or at least I hope so, because right after that I had a houseguest — my longtime friend, beta reader, and fellow author Erica Smith — for two days of playing with the cat and chilling on the porch with tea (when I wasn’t at work). I did manage to take a selfie of us at the bagel shop, but didn’t get any other pictures — dammit, apparently even a new camera is not enough to remind me of such things.

Ah well; Erica and I had some good in-person confab about our respective works in progress, which is what’s really important. And Erica didn’t seem to mind my dubious hospitality, which is as much the mark of a friend as going to a friend’s house and finding they didn’t overclean it for your arrival.

It’s my turn to choose the book club book again come September, so in hopes of finding something new to present, I bought a Kindle copy of The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. It was entirely worth the recs I’d seen for it: the story was absorbing from the first moment, emotionally complex, with an intricate world and a fantastical, slightly steampunk-flavored atmosphere. And I read it all in one sitting — or I would have, if my eyes hadn’t given out at 96% at which point I realized I was in desperate need of sleep. I finished it first thing the next morning. This book is not, I fear, the kind of universal crowd-pleaser that To Say Nothing of the Dog and Doomsday Book (the most recent book club book) were — but then, what is? I may make them read it anyway, and get loaded on wine before it’s time to have the discussion.

Anyway, thanks to book club my nightstand currently looks like the quintessence of my mental space, so I took a picture of it to use for the category in future.

And finally, there was really no contest this morning between going out to run errands and getting out my watercolors. I had an idea of trying to represent what a prayer-light bowl looks like, based on a memory of a dish I used to have and with a tea-light in a different bowl as a guide. The result is not impressive but the color is all right. I may try this again on black paper, which would save me attempting a satisfactory background wash.

And that, I think, is all the news that’s fit to print.

Music and the Ryswyck ‘verse

It’s Saturday, nothing in particular is required of me, and though I certainly have a good deal of housework to do before the book club shows up here next Thursday, I have spent the morning puttering, going out only briefly to get an everything bagel with a garlic-herb schmear and a coffee.

I’ve also gone down the rabbit hole looking up music on Youtube. Seriously, sometimes I love living in the future. When I was a kid, if I wanted to sample a composer’s music, I had to walk uphill both ways to the library to put a hold on a CD. Now I can just click through to the next sample ad libitum. Which is precisely what I’ve been doing.

It all started when my friend Erica relayed the compliments of a friend who had bought and read Ryswyck on her recommendation. She mentioned rehearsing for a performance of Bruckner’s 7th symphony while she was reading it and thought they went well together. Now till yesterday, I had never heard any Bruckner; I have a sneaking affection for the Late Romantics, but my tastes tend toward the Slavs and the English rather than the Germans. So to the internets I went. On a cursory listen I can see why someone might find the symphony a good running background for Ryswyck, although (at a glance) I notice that the most salient feature of Bruckner’s 7th is that it is rather long, which I suppose is no more than I deserve, heh. It sounds like an interesting piece to play, which is something I would not say about Brahms or, God forbid, Mahler.

But naturally my thoughts turned to what music was/is in my mental background when I was writing or thinking about Ryswyck. Unfortunately, it’s rather like asking myself what I had for dinner two weeks ago: the fact is I just don’t recall listening to anything in particular while writing, and if any particular piece recommended itself to my mood, or to my concept of the atmosphere of the book, I can’t recall that either. Many years ago now I went ahead with the very bad idea of listening to Holst’s Hammersmith on repeat while writing a traumatic scene of a now-abandoned project; the experience rather soured me on the concept of composing under the influence, so to speak.

But, I finally recalled, I did put myself in the writing mood on at least one occasion with Vaughan Williams’s Sinfonia Antarctica, at least the first movement anyway. So I listened to that again yesterday, and because that opening two minutes just fascinates the hell out of me, I googled for commentary on it (three cheers for the future!) and found someone’s music theory dissertation of nonatonic collections in Vaughan Williams and Bax. A lot of music theory is over my head; for a while I labored under the mistaken idea that “nonatonic” meant “non-atonic” before realizing it meant “nine tones.” Anyway it certainly satisfied my curiosity (and then some) about the chord structure of the opening theme, with its application of opposing forces and the way it takes what could have been a straight harmonic minor scale and makes a parallelogram of it.

And that in a nutshell is the problem I have trying to summon musical quotations for a Ryswyckian playlist. The ‘verse is not our world; it doesn’t have the same religious history, for example, and though the ethnicities are coded (in longstanding tradition) to groups we recognize as vaguely Anglo/Scots/Breton/Alsatian, the peoples in the ‘verse aren’t really those things. Yet music is very important in the story, as a cultural matrix and a motive (in many senses of the word) for the characters; if I had the facility for musical genius that Tolkien had for languages, I would be highly tempted to write the kind of music I imagine my characters singing. (I wonder if Howard Shore does pro bono work?)

As it is, I put some thought into assembling some of the eclectic flavors that go into the mood and outlook of Ryswyck. Besides the Vaughan Williams, a contemporary piece I’ve linked before by Sarah Kirkland Snider, Something for the Dark, moved me when I heard it in performance. I am not very enamored with the opening statement, but the fragile persistence of the second theme made me think right away of Speir, and the overall eclecticism seems fitting to me for a post-nuclear age.

A song I do remember listening to, though it doesn’t speak directly to anything in the book, is Agnes Obel’s “The Curse.” The collection needs an elegiac ostinato in there, and this one strikes a very appropriate note.

The “chants” described in the book are, to some extent, inspired by plainsong tones such as can be found in the Plainsong Psalter, particularly the Tonus Peregrinus, except that Ilonian chant supports both polyphony and drones, the latter of which would set it apart from Anglican chant. At its most sublime it would strike a note much like Ola Gjeilo’s “The Spheres,” from the Sunrise Mass.

In more martial contexts, and in the seasonal songbooks, the effect is similar to shape-note tunes like “Clamanda” and “Tender Thought.” (For the former I’m indebted to Ann Leckie; it’s not the only time I have progressed in my labors only to discover later that AL had broken the ground before me.) This is one example of the many ways in which I decided to put my own American eclecticism to use delineating a world in which cultures have painstakingly put themselves back together like the fractures of a bone. It’s more invocation than description.

The more playful songs, along with the reels, owe a lot to anything in our world played with the bodhran, the fiddle, the Celtic flute, and the pipes. But do you know just how much Session music there is to trawl through? I’d be reduced to a cobweb-draped skeleton before I could find the perfect tune to evoke the sense of it without indebting myself too much to the history built up behind so many of these tunes. I did find the fiddle virtuoso Liz Carroll, however; a representative track (though sans bodhran) gets near the kind of thing that’s in my head.

And because it’s July and my friend K has got Summerfest tickets again, I have chamber music on tap every Sunday of the month. Till I started going to these concerts I did not realize just how much of the charm of chamber music depends on being in the same room with it — and that too is a part of the ‘verse. Recorded music is not a popular means of consumption in Ilona, nor do people go to large concerts unless they live in the capital. Music is very much a cottage industry, made by people whose names you know because you grew up with them, or the next town over; it’s the only form of corporate worship there is, and thus is oriented to the community rather than the individual. That’s one way in which eclecticism plays us false, I think: we have so much to choose from that it’s hard to get past thinking about what one likes and dislikes, about one’s own empirical autobiographical experiences, to the context of the people knitted in with us. A poised engagement: that is the ethic I’m reaching for here.

So, there you have it: an off-the-cuff playlist for the Ryswyck ‘verse. Probably ten minutes after I post this I’ll be slapping my brow at what I forgot, but it can’t be helped. Happy Saturday!

Style and the virtual cocktail party: part two in a series

Last week I introduced Robert Alter’s book The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age by supporting his argument that literary art can in fact be distinguished from other forms of written communication. Alter wrote his book before even email became ubiquitous, and now, in the age of the tweet, there are even more forms of the written word to compete with the distinction of literature, so I think it’s worth reviewing the ground Alter covers, with my own perspectives and occasional critiques, in light of 21st-century life.

Alter did not set himself the project of covering all the functions of literary skill, just enough of them to outline what makes writing — and reading — good books a worthwhile endeavor. So I’m going to talk about style, which Alter did cover, along with genre and convention, which he didn’t.

Style, Alter says, is “the medium we swim in as we read,” and therefore is not something you can just pin down in a few descriptive phrases; but as he points out, it’s worth trying to tease out the concept so we can get a look at it. In general, writing exists because it’s a way of getting words from the person making them to another person who is not present. Now that we have phones and Skype and podcasts and television and Netflix, the fact that writing was made to cover that gulf of absence is somewhat obscured. But it’s one thing to leap that gulf with the written word; it’s another to make the most of it as a fillable gap, to turn it from mere negative space to an occasion for art that is complex, fanciful, representative, or stimulating, or all that and more.

That is where style comes in. The way in which a story is told is an intimate component of the story itself, and when a writer is skilled and in control of her instrument, that way of forming and ordering words “goes to the heart,” as Alter says, of the work. Connections are set alight, metaphors are ranked as buttresses, the fleeting experiences of the mind and soul are evoked; pace and diction shape the reader’s experience of the text in a way that draws them — or fails to draw them — into the dream of the writer’s world for the time that they are reading.

Alter also takes some pains to show how style is handled by less skilled writers: “A good deal of bestselling American prose,” he says, “is written in a mode one might call Standard Contemporary Novelistic, representing, I would guess, a homogenization and formulaic reduction of certain features of robust and muscular style introduced in the twenties and thirties by Hemingway, Dos Passos, Farrell, and others. This writing often reflects a certain workmanlike competence, but the suspicion of a cliche lurks around the corner of all too many sentences.” He goes on to say that striving to be “literary” is in fact a hallmark of mediocre writing, and skewers a passage of one of Barbara Cartland’s books in illustration of this.

I mean, on the one hand, ouch! But on the other, it’s worth getting at this sort of troubled synapse between the writer who hamfists a palette of literary styles, and the average reader who might, in fact, resent having to do even a little work to engage with a complex book. It brings to my mind two passages from books I’ve reread with enjoyment.

In my favorite of the Robert Galbraith novels written by J.K. Rowling, The Silkworm, our detectives are trying to unravel the mystery of a novelist who was killed, it seems, in the same tableau as the ending of his last manuscript. They wind up interviewing both “bad” and “good” writers, along with critics, agents, and publishers, who knew the victim, and Rowling doesn’t hesitate to draw direct parallels between the attitudes of the pathetically-derivative self-published writers and those of the celebrated masculine authors — their preening and their neuroticism, their senses of what’s decent among writers and how rarely those standards are lived up to, and so on. But the Cartland-like “bad” novelist insists on describing her work as “quite literary,” and undercuts her friend’s writing by saying “it’s not great literature or anything,” even while deploring how her friend had been treated by the murder victim. Alter’s right: an aspiration to be seen as “literary” is a sign of underdevelopment in a writer, one of those giveaways that tell you exactly what you’re likely to find in their work.

To compare with another meta-literary discussion: in Dorothy L. Sayers’s Gaudy Night, Harriet Vane attends a cocktail party with fellow writers, who are all talking about the Book of the Moment, either with admiration or bitterness, or a sort of Emperor’s-New-Clothes unwillingness to seem unsophisticated. “But what’s Mock Turtle about?” Harriet says, and is treated to a long description of an incomprehensible plot filled with grotesque characters. “But of course a lot of things came into it — it was one of those books that reflect the author’s reactions to Things in General. Altogether, significant was, he thought, the word to describe it….Harriet began to feel that there might be something to be said even for the plot of [her current manuscript]. It was, at least, significant of nothing in particular.”

I think one of the problems of the modern age (and by the modern age I mean a period that has its beginnings with the rise of the novel itself, leading to our polytextual mosaic of daily existence), is the perpetual consciousness of the literary arena in the mind of the writer. A writer doesn’t want to write from an external locus of what styles and subjects are “significant” — underdevelopment of one’s own style is one thing; failure to strike the right note among one’s peers is even worse. It’s not coincidental that these reflections on writers’ communities are from mystery novels — a genre which has been a handy scapegoat for all that is formulaic and hyper-laden with overused tropes. The writers of the mysteries actually in the reader’s hands — Rowling and Sayers — are taking their swipes at an establishment that dismisses their own literary merit out of hand even as it indulges its own artistic narcissism to a unrecognized and gross extent.

And the virtual cocktail party is always going on. Let a genre writer stick sensibly to “workmanlike” prose, and watch his book’s style be dismissed as unremarkable, his story as tropetastic. But let a genre writer conversely innovate one or more of her genre’s conventions, and she may get tagged as “pretentious” by reviewers and readers who “couldn’t get into it.” “Pretentious,” as it was pointed out in a blog I cannot now find, is a word that gets applied to people who the speaker thinks are undeserving of the thing they are “pretending” to, as a usurper pretends to a throne. To call someone “pretentious” is to tell them they ought to “know their place.” Alter says that he is unabashedly using literature and style as “honorific” terms, to counter the critical environment that has been busily deprivileging literary art as a mirage covering propaganda and deterministic structures. But Alter knows, I think, that we can’t just leave it at that.

As a writer and as a reader (and when they let me, as a critic), I think it’s part of the “high fun,” as Alter puts it, of literature to ask of a text how a thing is done, why it’s done, what effect it has, the sheer engineering of the thing; and then to apply a value judgment if appropriate. Here’s an example of a convention that irritates me as a reader, by way of example. In a lot of well-regarded modern fiction, it’s become a Thing to write dialogue without the use of quotation marks, and sometimes to dispense with the convention of starting a new paragraph with a new speaker as well. Whatever the author might intend by it, this has specific effects as the reader goes through the text. It buries the dialogue visually in the narrative as a whole, making the text appear to be a hermetically-sealed experience of the POV character if there is one, or the general situation if there isn’t. This can evoke a dream-like quality to the experience of reading which can quickly be escalated to nightmare if that’s what the writer wants.

As soon as I encounter a book like this, my reaction as a reader is something along the lines of: There damn well better be a payoff if you’re going to make me adjust to the absence of a helpful convention. And sometimes there is. But sometimes, it just comes off as a cheapskate way of making the text seem more difficult than it really is. Eventually, the Iowa Writer’s Workshop will move on to a new style Thing, and the tides will leave some books exposed as gimmicky.

As a reader, there are some difficulties I will tackle with joy — and some I will leave on the plate. I will read the Divine Comedy for the hell of it, struggle through a massively allusive Dorothy Dunnett novel, savor the patchworked personal narrative of a memoir like H is for Hawk; but Finnegans Wake? Someone else can read that. I’ve no axe to grind about what I’ve sampled of Lincoln in the Bardo, but I haven’t got round to finishing it either.

As a writer, I don’t aspire to produce deathless literary prose, in part because you can’t say “I’m going to go cut down a forest” without eventually having to tackle some tree or other. Erin Bow can write imagery with a miraculous economy and a gossamer touch, and I envy the hell out of that, but it’s a thing she no doubt developed by hard work while also being absolutely inimitable. In my youth I sought to write lots of first-person narratives because I had been reading a lot of very good ones and thought that was how you went about writing great fiction. But I’m not Harper Lee, either. While working on several fanfiction projects (and I’ll tackle the conventions of fic when I write about character and/or perspective at a later date), I learned how the surrounding style conventions worked and evolved, and chose what suited me to use; and by such degrees, and by reading more, and reading more kinds of things, I developed my instrument, which just happened to be useful for the kind of story I wanted to write. Go figure!

But as a reader who is also a writer, I crave discussion venues that aren’t just replications of the virtual cocktail party. In a response paper in a long-ago seminar of Victorian lit, I remarked on Jane Eyre that Charlotte Bronte had a quandary on her hands with the endgame of the novel, recognizable to writers and dreamers if not to anyone else — that Jane and Rochester had to get together at the end, and Rochester had to have suffered something by then, so how? What she did about the quandary makes for a much more interesting discussion, to me, than “I liked/didn’t like it” on the one hand or “Monological imperatives in Dick and Jane: a study in psychic transrelational gender modes,” from a Calvin and Hobbes strip pasted up on a fellow grad-student’s office door in an oblique commentary on our common critical enterprise. But a venue for real, actual literary discussion is surprisingly elusive — not just in the halls of academe but in listservs, blog communities, and book clubs whose purpose would seem to be nothing else!

I mean, I can’t be the only person who wants to have a thoroughgoing discussion about what’s actually in the book. Right?

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?