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.

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.

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.

In the word mines: the open sea, with some charts, and the firmament

Well, I seem to have got off my blogging regimen just a little bit, after a brief spate. But I’m not all that sorry, because I have been writing. The odometer on “Household Lights” just clicked over 30,000 words, and I feel pretty good about them.

And naturally, there was a good reason why I was stymied several days earlier. Several of the elements I had envisioned for the story, when brought together, had a chemical reaction I hadn’t prepared for, and the anticipation of the decisions I would have to make had slowed my roll. But, after some chat with a couple of betas, and an exciting new idea, I started to write my way into the new reality.

I remarked to Erica afterwards that I didn’t often write to find out what happens, but that I was definitely doing so in this case, and she said, “Oh god, I write to find out what happens all the time.” It’s interesting to me how different people’s processes can be: I dream and mentally storyboard nearly everything before ever putting down a word — and usually the first thing I write isn’t the first thing, it’s a thread of conversation I found to pull in service of some character interaction or plot turn. I amass a clutch of jotted passages, some of which are barely-scaffolded strings of dialogue and some of which are fully-blocked scenes, and then at some point I take the plunge and start writing the opening. Usually, when I get to the already-written material, it fits in well as-is. Sometimes it needs tweaking. Rarely do I have to throw away any pre-written scenes, but it has been known to happen.

For “Household Lights” I have three pre-written passages to work into the remaining sequences, and (by current count) seven sequences left to write. That will probably work out to about 20k more words, now that I’ve charted my new territory somewhat.

What’s interesting about the developments of this story is the knock-on effects it will have on what I’m still calling Book 2. (That makes “Household Lights,” like, what, 1.5 or something? I haven’t decided. I think Ann Leckie — or at least, Goodreads — did something similar with her short, um, ancillary material to her Ancillary Justice trilogy, and there’s a good story you should definitely read. And you can tell just how effectively she interrogated the domination system from the inside by how livid it made worshippers of domination. I could only aspire to that kind of effectiveness; but I digress.) Some themes I had planned to address in Book 2 demanded to be treated in this story, which on the one hand may alter some of my pre-written scenes for it, but on the other, may clear a lot of ground ahead of time and save me some wordage down the line. So as Bob Ross says, we don’t make mistakes in our world; we just have happy accidents.

So, it’s back to work with me. Tea, sunrise, a dusting of snow outside, and an open document in here. Heigh-ho.