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Archive for January 2010

Polyglot Sensibilities

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Poor Stuart Evers, his article on Jonathan Lethem’s eclecticism has been burdened by the subs with a heading which I’m sure he wouldn’t agree with: “Jonathan Lethem’s output is impressively diverse, but it’s not going to win him a dedicated readership”. I would argue that Lethem’s diverse output is exactly what has won him a dedicated readership. I’m sure Evers would be sympathetic to that view but he doesn’t do himself any favours:

When asked at last week’s reading at the London Review Bookshop about the wildly different nature of his work, and whether this was a help or a hindrance to his work, Lethem was wholly positive about his polyglot sensibilities… Creatively speaking, his argument was both logical and sure-footed: after all, no one would deny writers the absolute right to choose the subject and style of their work. But such diversity is not perhaps the best way to endear yourself to a readership, or to receive a consistent critical reception.

He doesn’t provide much evidence for this, apart from the mixed reception to You Don’t Love Me Yet. Also, although I’m pleased he is drawing attention to authors who plough their own furrow, I’m not sure it is that rare or noteworthy. Lethem’s progression from science fiction novelist to receiving widespread acclaim outside the genre is certainly unusual but moving between genres and styles is not. Consider Peter Carey: in the last ten years we have had a pastiche of Dickens, a retelling of the story of Ned Kelly in dialect, a fictional take on the Ern Malley hoax, a volume of travel writing on Japan, a Transpacific love story set in the modern art world and a look at Sixities counterculture politics. This is not atypical (although I will admit that I am an atypical reader in that I am particularly drawn to this sort of writer).

Evers talks about a publishing industry “obsessed with creating brands” but Lethem is his own brand and the same is true of other major literary writers like Carey. I would suggest it is unlikely that when they turn in their latest offering that there is “some grumbling from the sales department eager to sell in another fantasy-crime novel featuring a returning character”. They are different products for different markets. Evers view only makes sense from within a narrow slice of comercial publishing. It is easy to internalise some of the bad news messages of the industry but I think things are a lot more positive than people sometimes make out. In the oppostie direction, Evers overstates his case for the uniqueness of the books the writers he champions produce:

And while for the vast majority these are thematically, geographically, stylistically or generically linked to each other, for the few – the brilliant, yet perpetually overlooked Chris Paling and the incredible but under-championed Nicholson Baker for example – such similarities are much harder to tease out.

I’ve not read Paling but it isn’t that hard to see similarities in Baker’s work; between The Mezzanine and Room Temperature or between Vox and Checkpoint. Similarly I’ve recently been reading Lethem’s ‘Hardened Criminals’ (1996) and there are clear links to his later novels like Motherless Brooklyn (1999) and The Fortress of Solitude (2003). In fact, part of the joy with an eclectic writer is finding the links.

Despite quibbling with Evers about the number of Lethem-like authors who already exist I would still like to see more of them, particularly coming – like him – from within science fiction. Regardless of current gloom about the publishing industry I retain a naive optimism that the good will out and, given the increased permeability between science fiction and mainstream literature in the last decade, I do think we will be seeing more of these sort of writers in the future.

Written by Martin

15 January 2010 at 13:06

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But Then I Got High

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As well as becoming one of my favourite novelists, Patrick Ness is rapidly becoming one of my favourite reviewers. It helps that the Guardian usually send him exactly the sort of book I’m interested in. This month it is Chronic City by Jonathen Lethem:

Let me say here that I have no idea whether Lethem lights up himself, but without even considering the possibility, I’d already thought the sparkiness of earlier work such as Gun, With Occasional Music and Motherless Brooklyn had gone strangely awol in Lethem’s last two novels, the wide-ranging but frequently dull The Fortress of Solitude and the misfiring romantic comedy You Don’t Love Me Yet. Chronic City is better than both of those, but it’s still sometimes a struggle to see through the sheer haze of pot smoke.

I was surprised that I liked You Don’t Love Me Yet as much as I did but, like Ness, I have found his recent work less satisfying then his earlier work and I was not looking forward to Chronic City with any sense of anticipation. Frankly, it sounds like a mess and the bits that sound good have already been published:

Take Janice’s letters to Chase. Popping up every hundred pages or so, they’re just brilliant… The letters, in fact, are so compelling, they were a standalone short story in the New Yorker last year called “Lostronaut”. And “Lostronaut”, I think, is the Chronic City that might have been; everything Jonathan Lethem is capable of: compellingly odd beauty, a fresh turn of phrase (those “dry little feet”) and a concise, downbeat narrative arc, all delivering insight and emotional impact.

Elsewhere in the paper, Nicholas Lezard makes The Rapture by Liz Jensen his paperback choice:

Thrillers, alas, do not need to be well-written to succeed. (You could tell The Da Vinci Code was garbage from its very first word. But it was still a success.) So when an entertainment is, at the level of the sentence, up to the mark of respectable literary fiction then the entertainment is all the better – and all the more convincing: good prose is, or can feel like, a guarantor of truth, which makes The Rapture a peculiarly unnerving book, and all the more timely for coming in the wake of the failed negotiations of Copenhagen.

My review will be published by Strange Horizons the week after next and yes, it is pretty good. (I did raise an eyebrow at this line from Lezard’s review: “after all, we have been reading about screwed-up weather at least since Martin Amis wrote London Fields“.)

Written by Martin

9 January 2010 at 12:40

Like A Ride In An Old Banger

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Mark Newton does not like the word “clunky”. More accurately, he questions its usefulness as a critical term: “What do people mean when they say prose or dialogue is sometimes clunky? No, stop, think. What do they really mean?”

I was intrigued because it seems like a fairly straightforward piece of reviewing shorthand. There is another name for commonplaces though – cliches – and we all know what you need to do with cliches. Out of interest I had a quick Google to see if I had used the term and sure enough I had, in my review of The Prefect by Alastair Reynolds:

What starts off as a dazzlingly compulsive thriller is slowly ground down by lazy, thoughtless writing. At one point, for example, Ng gives a little pep talk: “Okay, people, let’s stick together. Like the man said, there could be some angry citizens out there, and we may be the ones they decide to take it out on.” This might be acceptable on Hill Street Blues but not in a book set in the 25th century. This sort of clunky dialogue — the ghost memory of a thousand police procedurals — litters the novel. Something similar is true of the characterisation.

I think I escape Newton’s censure because I don’t leave “clunky” sitting there on its own, I buttress it with further remarks. What do I mean by clunky though? Joe Abercrombie has a good response in the comments:

Clunky, like a clunky ride in an old banger, the reader is constantly jolted out of immersion in the piece and loses that sense of confidence in the writing which is vital to enjoyment of a book. I don’t think it is so much about rhythm, actually. Words that seem innapropriate to meaning, or unnecessarily difficult. Images that are ill-thought out, do not stand scrutiny. Dialogue that is not honest or convincing.

What I mean when I use clunky is to say that the dialogue is mechanical rather than natural. Natural here doesn’t mean graceful or smooth or even realistic – as Newton points out, dialogue rarely bears any resemblence to real speech, try looking at an unedited transcript some time – it means it sounds like something that would come out of the character’s mouth. In contrast, the Reynolds quote is mechanical because it merely seeks to move things along without consideration of how appropriate the words are for the time, place or person. Like clunky it is cliche. I will try not to use clunky but I hope authors will try and give me no cause to slip.

It is interesting in its generalities but Newton is obviously directing his post at some specific (but secret) targets. In particularly, someone seems to have been dissing DeLillo of whom he says: “I marvel that American lit-god Don DeLillo’s dialogue is sometimes described as clunky, whereas I personally adore it for being so, so realistic.”

I am also a great admirer of DeLillo; in fact, this was reinforced just yesterday when I read his short story, ‘Human Moments In World War Three’. Here is a not atypical chunk of dialogue from the story:

“People had hoped to be caught up in something bigger than themselves,” he says. “They thought it would be a shared crisis. They would feel a sense of shared purpose, shared destiny. Like a snowstorm that blankets a large city — but lasting months, lasting years, carrying everyone along, creating fellowfeeling where there was only suspicion and fear. Strangers talking to each other, meals by candlelight when the power fails. The war would enoble everything we say and do. What was impersonal would become personal. What was solitary would be shared. But what happens when the sense of shared crisis begins to dwindle much sooner than anyone expected? We begin to think the feeling lasts longer in snowstorms.”

Obviously his dialogue isn’t clunky, however, I’m not sure I could call it realistic either. DeLillo is a postmodern master of American literature and as such his dialogue often tends to the artificial. It is still natural for the characters in his stories though; perhaps no one in the real world would ever say this but so what? Of course, not only is it not clunky, it is also rhythmic, graceful, poetic and all those other things. I am very jealous.

Written by Martin

6 January 2010 at 11:49

Bestest

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The reviewers of Strange Horizons (including me) have posted their picks of the year. As Jonathan points out there is a lot of consensus around Kit Whitfield’s In Great Waters and China Mieville’s The City and The City (both picks of mine). Farah Mendlesohn’s On Joanna Russ, Greer Gilman’s Cloud And Ashes and Stephen Baxter’s Ark also do well. Although I promised myself a bit of a break from speculative fiction, there are several recommended books on there I would really like to read, particularly Kristin Cashore’s Graceling and Frances Hardinge’s Gullstruck Island. But I will try to resist. I’m certainly not going to go overboard like Niall and block out all my reading for the year.

Written by Martin

5 January 2010 at 14:10

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The Sound Of 2009

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I couldn’t say what the best music of 2009 was because I can’t really remember. I’ve already mentioned a few things but here are some of the songs that have been the soundtrack to my last twelve months.

Beyonce – Halo

When I heard that BK was going to become Sasha Fierce I cocked a sceptical eyebrow but it turns out her work in this persona has been bloody brilliant. This is exceptional though, a commercial love song that totally avoids the banal and saccharin and instead translates the religious imagery of the title into something transcendental. I can’t embed the classy video so you will have to follow the link. The beats might sound a little raspy on computer speakers but you will still need to make sure you have a loved one to grab hold of at 3:03 when they come back in.

Dizzee Rascal – Bonkers

From the sublime to the ridiculous. A collaboration between Dizzee Rascal and Armand Van Helden was probably the last thing the world was crying out for but somehow it works. The rest of Dizzee’s loadsamoney happy period I would happy trade in for the grime of his teenage years but here his glee is infectious and it has soundtracked many an ill-advised bogle in 2009. Great shark costume too:

Steve Earle – Ben McCulloch

Earle has more than his fair share of ups and downs and as far as I’m concerned Train A Comin’ is more up than down. The wonder of legal mp3s meant that I could download this superb story song of the American Civil War without the rest of the album. It also meant that I could foolishly (and drunkenly) buy ‘Bodies’ by Drowning Pool based on fond memories and this webcomic.

Ashlee Simpson – Outta My Head (Ay Ya Ya)

Jessica’s little sister effortlessly outclasses her with this pop gem about that old favourite: “oh noes, fame is doing my head in”.

Blur – Ambulance

Seeing the Hyde Park re-union gig and finally buying Think Tank was the perfect way to round out my love affair with the band. The album is a masterclass in growing old gracefully and the opening track seems the most appropriate way to represent this here: “No, I ain’t got nothing to be scared off.”

God Help The Girl – Funny Little Frog

Stuart Murdoch turns impressario, puts together a 1960s girl group and gets them to re-record one of his old Belle & Sebastian songs. Glorious:

Arcade Fire – Wake Up

An old favourite but given a new lease of life by its inclusion in the trailer for Where The Wild Things Are. It was the perfect choice but unfortunately the trailer turned out to be better than the film. Still, at least it put this back onto heavy rotation on my iPod.

Arctic Monkeys – Cornerstone

The standout track from Humbug and possibly the finest thing they have recorded. Alex Turner’s lyrics are as brilliant in the specificity as always but this is coupled with a new yearning and warmth to his delivery which was only hinted at on Favourite Worst Nightmare. The sliding, shifting guitars only match this desire for a love as elusive as a scent on a seatbelt.

Bonnie “Prince” Billie – So Everyone

The first dance at my wedding. Nuff said.

The Lovegods – Sadie Mercedes

“I met her in White City, her bumper was so pretty.” I came across this on an old mix CD which contained loads of other great stuff like Safronia B by Calvin Boze and Voodoo Voodoo by Lavern Baker. This is the stand out though, sexy Detroit Cobra-style rock and roll. “A body that was so sublime, she could never be just mine”:

Bob Dylan – Must Be Santa

There seems to have been a bit of a mental illness theme to these selections. Here is His Bobness going off the deep end, donning a wig and a poker face and belting out this festive polka. This horrendous earworm has defined the end of my year so I don’t see why it shouldn’t define the beginning of your’s:

Written by Martin

4 January 2010 at 20:48

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I’m Searching For The New Soul Rebels But I Can’t Find Them Anywhere, Where Have You Hidden Them?

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New Weird: a marketing category (or perhaps a movement) around the turn of the millennium, which explored new and often disturbing ways of looking at fantasy motifs and at the borderlands between science fiction and fantasy.

This is how Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James define New Weird in the glossary to their A Short History Of Fantasy. I think it is safe to say that New Weird never really got off the ground as either a marketing category or a movement, it was more of an idea or a discussion. As I wrote in 2006 in a survey of SF movements for Vector:

This is a movement so nebulous that no one could agree on a name for it, let alone a definition and its practioners often deny they write it. The two writers probably most associated with the idea—the pulpy but serious China Miéville and the literary but playful Jeff VanderMeer—use shared genre antecedents to produce very different results. Editorials on the New Weird penned by Miéville, Justina Robson and Graham Joyce did appear in The Third Alternative but these, and the thrashing out of ideas on various internet message boards, only reinforced the lack of commonality. This is mutual respect, mutual ancestry and mutual interests but not anything you could call a manifesto.

It is true, however, that it was fairly short lived; like many conversations it had its genesis in a specific time and place. So it is odd that Mendlesohn and James make it so central to Chapter Eleven of their book, covering fantasy published between 2000 and 2008 (although actually entitled ‘2000-2010’, presumably signalling an early intent to publish a revised edition). Despite admitting that it is “extremely difficult to define” New Weird, they draw a large and disparate group of writers together under this banner. The chapter opens with a brief introduction to the concept, drawing heavily on the TTA Press discussion linked above, following a discussion of China Miéville and Mary Gentle before moving on to other, less plausible candidates:

Two other writers strongly associated with the New Weird in its first years where Ian R. MacLeod and Steph Swainston… New Weird is a genre of both content and style. The Scottish writer Hal Duncan has been acclaimed as one of the greatest stylists in the field… Perhaps some of the most interesting twists of fantasy content come from K.J. Parker and Steve Cockayne… New British writers of the New Weird include Joe Abercrombie (The Blade Itself, 2006) and Stephen Hunt (The Court Of The Air, 2007). (pp. 187-189)

That last sentence is pretty stunning but is presented entirely without any supporting evidence. Presumably Mendlesohn and James have some evidence, even if they didn’t have room or time to actually include it (the book appears to have been written with indecent haste), but I can’t imagine what it is. Duncan and Swainston do seem at home with the weird – I wrote at the time “The Year of Our War is the first book that makes you believe New Weird actually is a movement, rather than a bunch of books China Miéville likes.” – but even MacLeod, although he may have been associated with it, was never unambiguously a New Weird writer. As Cheryl Morgan commented at the time:

I’m currently about 75% of the way through “The Light Ages”, and for all the publishers attempts to market it as another “Perdido Street Station” I’m struck by how different the two books are. China produced a living, seething impression of a city, whereas Macleod has given us a beautifully written but curiously passionless description of a city. China’s work is utterly weird, whereas MacLeod’s approach makes even the magical seem mundane.

Things remain strange when looking more directly at American fiction. Despite earlier acknowledging divisions between the predominantly British New Weird and existing American traditions, it is then all lumped together again. They take Conjunctions 39: The New Wave Fabulists as a key example of American New Weird when surely it is a better fit with the interstitial crowd (although slipstream has an entry in the glossary it is conspicuously absent from the index). Even Miéville’s story in the anthology is markedly different from the work that lodged him at the heart of New Weird.

As with the British writers, there is another jaw-dropper of a sentence: “The best-known short-story writers of the American Weird movement are Ted Chiang and Kelly Link.” (p. 193) I can see precious little to connect the two writers apart from their obvious brilliance at the short form nor do I think either are (consciously or otherwise) working in anything that might be described as New Weird. Of course, everyone has their own definition of what New Weird might be, that is part of the point, problem and fun. It is not necessarily that Mendlesohn and James are wrong, it is just that it seems perverse to make such a contentious concept the backbone of a history of the period with such little attempt at justification.

Written by Martin

3 January 2010 at 20:32