Monday, February 27, 2006

Octavia Butler: A Science Fiction Hero

Octavia Butler died last Friday, 24 Feb 2006, after falling and hitting her head outside her home in Seattle. LiP Magazine has a .pdf of an interview they did with her about her most recent novel, Fledgling. I was lucky enough to hear Ms. Butler talk about her book, on a night of high wind and driving rain in Toronto, the sort of night when no sensible person is (doing anything but?) fighting their way across campus carrying a large box to see one of their heroes. Many other sensible people fought the good fight, and listened, for an hour, to some amazing stories, good advice and incisive political analysis. Democracy Now has a brief obituary, reminding readers that Butler always used her position as one of the few African-American writers of science fiction to engage in critique of political power, racial inequality, sexism and attendant oppressions. She did so with high humour, much hope and an ever-evolving set of characters who provide new models for living, as she did in her writing life.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Almighty NYT

I must be pretty cool, because I know three people who have had books reviewed in the New York Times over the last couple of weeks. Two of them I even like, both as people and as authors ;) One is the splendid SF Said, author of Varjak Paw, scoring his second NYT Review, which gives hope that serious consideration of children's books is not confined to this blog. It would have been cool to see an NYT journalist discussing the import of Varjak's Mesopotamian (Iraqi, for those not equipped with an archaeological turn of brain) ancestry rather than whether dogs are cooler than cats, but still -- a good review from a dog person for a cat book. That's high praise indeed. The second person (I'm just jamming him in here where he can't really be seen) is Nick Laird, who I've only met briefly but took against for a number of reasons involving money, sex and poetry. He famously has all of these, simultaneously, which is pretty irritating. And he has a review in NYT. If they just called him "Zadie Smith's husband," everyone would ignore him or be snide about him the way they are when some male artist's wife or girlfriend achieves something. (Hmm, and all three authors reviewed are male... Conspiracy? It's not like all my friends are male).
The third person to be lavished with praise is Steve Heighton, who I met at Massey College in 2004 (and once before that, very drunkenly, at a party for the Griffin Prize) where he was writer-in-residence, working on 'Afterlands,' the book reviewed in said august organ. It's pretty cool to follow a book from production to publication to review, something I've been lucky enough to witness - in all its pains and glories - a few times over the last years. To see such solitary, ornery struggles become the meat of public consumption (NYT book pages = Sunday brunch) is unnerving for someone considering committing their own thoughts and inventions to the page.
Exciting, too: a review in NYT lifted Afterlands from 1000-ish to the top 100 on overnight. In some ways, the Amazon sales ranking has replaced the good review as balm to an author's heart (not that authors check it obsessively or anything). But what does it mean, apart from that Americans can clearly eat brunch, read the NYT and use their computers at the same time (ah, the dangers of One-Click ordering...) For hardcover lit fic, fine - but are 8 year olds reading NYT? Surely not. Or ordering from Amazon?
It's scary that the literary world can be carved up so: a few publications of renown place their seal of approval. A few large retailers order. Or don't order. Display or don't display. The, as has been written so often, end. What does it matter that a small independent bookstore can sell 150 copies of an Indigenous fantasy novel put out by a small press at its launch? Rabid fans didn't even have the power to float Serenity at the box office...
OK, so I'm changing the subject (which was? oh yeah, how cool I am, but enought of that) but it's all connected: the media sells us pre-packaged "cult classics" and gets hoist on its own hypetard (JT Leroy, anyone?). Readers aren't enough anymore - what matters is consumers. I know that I have a shelf of unread books (I mean, that was the point of this blog but - in that curious way - new books keep keeping me from the old ones) but I intend to read them, when I'm not reading other things. I don't just buy them because the NYT makes them sound important. It's not like I wish for another era, where only rich people who could read Latin could own books - hell, I bet the Duc de Berry never even looked at his "tres riches heures" - but I'm curious as to what a community of readers, rather than shoppers, might look like.
I think that Kynship, Afterlands and The Outlaw Varjak Paw would still be in that top 100 - but funkymonkeyboy wouldn't. What neglected classics - unreviewed, unsaleable, deeply loved - would you see up there?

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Tell me, what do we all long for?

If there's one thing that gets my guaranteed goat, it's generalizations. I aspire to become my high school english teacher, who would cover essays with cryptic abbreviations such as "RG," for "rash generalization." No crime was worse, in her eyes, than presuming on the seasoning of sauce for both goose and gander. This is why I ignore prize lists, bestsellers and other people's recommendations, boiling my own sauce out of weirdness such as Women & Sufism and film theory, which no-one really reads for fun. While the novel has to brave - must, even - an attempt at the general, it has always struck me that poetry is an art of the specific. Which is why, when poets turn to prose narrative, their novels tend to have the charm of the particular, the minute and the perverse. And which is also why I am so astonished by the badness of Dionne Brand's latest, What We All Long For.
In fairness, I should have seen it coming. Everyone on the planet - including some who write for the New York Times - think it's the greatest book ever. Rave reviews have raved late into the night. I have handsold a dozen or more copies based on other people's gushing adoration. But something wasn't right... I put the book on hold at the library when it first came out, and then didn't even buy it when it appeared in paperback a year later, even though I was still fifty-seventh in a list of four hundred and twenty. I just knew it would suck.
Now, don't get me wrong - I love Brand's work. I have taught In Another Place Not Here, and own several volumes of her poetry. But something about how reviewers kept talking about how her new book was so "real," how it captured the spirit of the city, how it told the truth (because there is only one) about the immigrant experience in Canada, about racism, whatever - that's a government report, not a novel. Other people might read to see themselves reflected, to see the blinding truth but - that's the blinding obvious, duh!
I read to be surprised by things I didn't know (I knew), to be astonished by a detail or description so hallucinatory it couldn't possibly be for real. Not for wisdom, but for enchantment. Not for dialogue that sounds as if it were copied from an anti-racism education workbook, but for the incredible but true ways in which we sometimes speak without thinking, or think without speaking. Insight doesn't stick to the surface. It doesn't say "somehow" (I counted a dozen somehows in 5 pages) - it knows how. It never repeats itself, except when it means to.
But (unlike Brand) I don't generalise. Perhaps this is the book that others have longed for, and I respect their longing. But I wonder at the arrogance of that "all" and those it excludes, and the vagueness of its promise (what do we all long for? belonging, I surmise from 100 pages). I long for the specificity of an author who once longed to make something new, not mis-reproduce memories of eavesdropped streetcar chatter, not tell me things I already know.