Harlan

Some people just get in.

In this instance, though, the process was years at work.

Harlan Ellison died on June 28th, 2018, and I have been off-balance, riled, and melancholy ever since I saw the first notice, at work, doing something else on-line. It had been coming for a while. He was not well. He was never going to “recover” from the last few years. A stroke had wreaked havoc with him, although it had left him with access to all his faculties. This was expected. Nevertheless, it came as a shock, if not a total surprise, and the aftershocks have been working through me ever since. This one hurts. Deeply.

How, exactly, did this happen? I did not know the man so well. If I had to guess, I would say we had spent less than a week of actual face-to-face time together. We had spoken on the phone a total of maybe twenty hours in a number of years. I’d written him a few letters and he had written back. And yet, at least on my part, I counted him as a friend. I know that can happen, that people can know each other a very short time and somehow create a connection which, with other people, would ordinarily take years to build. It may well be only on my part, but I don’t think so.

How, I ask again, did this happen?

Well, there was this review I wrote about the documentary, Dreams With Sharp Teeth. But it didn’t really start there.

Back in my youth, I used to read all the SF magazines. From time to time I’d come across a story that stood out. Zelazny, Silverberg, Tiptree. Those kind of stories. Among them were fey pieces by this guy Harlan Ellison that troubled me. They troubled me because while I read them eagerly and felt moved by some of them, I suspected I didn’t really “get” them. These were not like most of the other stories. In fact, they weren’t like any of them, really. And they bothered me. So much so that at about age 15 or 16 I swore off them. If I stumbled across a Harlan Ellison story, I avoided it. I was uncomfortable with them, they disturbed me in ways no one else’s work did.

And I more or less forgot about him.

I was unaware of scenarists back then. When the credits rolled on a tv show or movie, I never paid much attention to the Written By. Or much else other than who was acting in it. I was dimly aware that the Star Trek episode which has subsequently come to be regarded as the best of the original series was different. For one thing, when I saw it the first time I was startled by a curse word. “Let’s get the hell out of here,” Kirk says. That was practically unheard of on television then. That “hell” stood out.

But what did it mean? The rest of the episode stuck with me more clearly than most of the other episodes, but then time passed and everything else piled on top, and I forgot.

I had no knowledge of Fandom then. I was ignorant of that world, so the controversies being generated by this guy who had written stories that bothered me enough that I avoided them were unknown to me. The next time his name crossed my awareness was in the pages of OMNI when I read two things. One was a short story, called On The Slab and the other was a profile of an attempt to turn Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot into a film, and Harlan Ellison was going to adapt it. Harlan Ellison. I remembered that name. Why did I know that name? Oh, yeah, he wrote those weird, unclassifiable things that bothered me. Huh.

In 1980 I met my partner, who read the rather malformed things I’d written and encouraged me to try to publish them, and suddenly I was fully invested in this science fiction thing. Friends told us about conventions and we started going. We began meeting people. Joe Haldeman, Phyllis Eisenstein, George R.R. Martin, Rob Chilson, Vic Milan, C.J. Cherryh. I started submitting stories and I began paying closer attention to the magazines again, trying to divine the secrets of writing this stuff. The first convention we went to was Archon 6 and we heard stories about the one and only world science fiction convention that had been held here and Harlan Ellison figured prominently in relation to it. We listened to these stories and wondered, “Who is this guy?”

In the 1980s a new publishing line came out, Bluejay Books, and they reissued Ellison’s work with marvelous new covers, and I bought them and started reading them.

And suddenly they were not off-putting. Maybe I had grown into them. Maybe it required more of me than I had at 12 or 14 or 16. Maybe I was paying attention to Other Things. Whatever the reason, I tore through them, unable to get enough, amazed and awed and startled and terrified and intimidated and thrilled. I wrote a review of them (which never got published) which involved dinner of crow. Harlan Ellison’s work suddenly ranked alongside Bradbury, Sturgeon, Zelazny. I’d missed this way back when, I hadn’t understood, but it filled me up then. It might have been that I was in the process of trying to do this thing and was open to influences in a way I had never been before.

During this time, we’d become friends with another writer, Ed Bryant, who was one of Harlan’s best friends, and we heard more stories. At our first worldcon we got our first look at the man himself when, at L.A.Con II he made a surprise appearance in order to honor his first editor on stage during the Hugo ceremony. We picked up some of his nonfiction there and I became acquainted with that side of him.

Gradually, almost glacially, we became Aware. We found out about the Enemies Of Ellison (what?) and his involvement with Clarion (the workshop) and started hearing about his public contentiousness, the dispute with Roddenberry, the activism, the rumors, the extremes he generated in people. No other writer seemed to do these things or spark this kind of response. Piece by piece, a portrait assembled, but how could you trust it.

It’s fascinating sometimes to realize how much information one can accrue by means, vectors, and sources one is often completely unaware of. We saw him again in 1986, in Atlanta, and spent about four hours in an auditorium listening to him, both solo and then, when he ran over, in a panel which had been physically moved to that auditorium in order to have Harlan on it. We had had an exchange of dialogue that day over a book I’d bought in the dealers room (the only time a writer told me I should get my money back for a book with his name on it), and somehow we knew that he had found his soulmate, Susan, and she was with him, and Donna opined that it seemed she had calmed him somewhat.

How did we know that?

I applied for Clarion the next year and was accepted into the 1988 class. I had a book, Phoenix Without Ashes, by Ed Bryant and Harlan Ellison. Ed had signed it for me years before. Ed happened to be in town one weekend to help a mutual friend of ours move. He lifted that book and sent it to Harlan for his half of the autograph. (Ed was a wonderful, kind man.)

And somewhere during that time, he had become Harlan.  Just Harlan. To my knowledge, he’s the only writer I know of who is recognizable by his first name, at least the only writer of fantastic fiction so known. But how did that happen, that somehow a certain presumption of intimacy had occurred? Except for that one occasion in Atlanta, we never never met, did not know each other. (Not that unusual, though, many people who have never laid eyes on him call him “Harlan” as if they know him.)

More stories, more essays. He was by then a regular part of my reading.

Clarion happened. I began publishing. I rarely thought about “Harlan Ellison” unless I came across a new story or new collection, but Harlan had become part of a gestalt associated with my writing, a background presence.

We heard about the heart attack.

Then in 1999, Allen Steele suggested we come to Massachusetts for Readercon. Harlan was going to be guest of honor. He and Allen were buddies. We could finally meet.

We went. It was an incredible weekend. I had a chance to sit and talk to Harlan, to watch him, to see what all the fuss was about. And to hear him read aloud. That was a treat. Few writers are good public readers, but Harlan was incredible.

Allen introduced us. Harlan was talking to Gene Wolfe, whom we know slightly, and Allen brought me up and said, “Hey, Harlan, I’d like you to meet my friend, Mark Tiedemann.” Allen then proceeded to recite a list of my publications.  I am perversely shy about that, more so then, and I cut him off with a self-effacing, “Yeah, I’ve all over.” Harlan, without missing a beat, said “Oh, yeah? What’s it like in Tuva?” My brain skipped a beat. One of the few times in my life under circumstances like that it caught up and somehow pulled an answer up. “Very flat and cold, but if you’re into monotoned nasal music, they’ve got a great scene.”

Harlan said nothing for about five seconds, then cracked up, stuck his hand out to shake mine, then said “When were you last there?”

But my powers of repartee deserted me then and I had no reply.

Saturday night that weekend, I was wandering the hotel late. About to give it up and go back to my room, I waited before the elevators. The doors opened and a crowd poured out, led by Harlan as they made a beeline for one of the function rooms, which the hotel opened up so they could continue the party which had gotten them booted from a room on the fifth floor. I was swept up in the throng, carried into the room, and ended up sitting two down from Harlan, who was regaling his audience still with jokes and stories. (Somewhere there exists a photograph of him that night and you can see me, sitting, I think, beside Warren Lapine, who is right next to Harlan.) It was one in the morning and after a grueling day Harlan was still On. He seemed to vibrate from the stress and tension, but he was delivering his 110%.

After that, we had no contact. I pursued (desperately) a career that never got off the ground and thought not at all about any relationship with Harlan Ellison.

Then the documentary came out. Dreams With Sharp Teeth is a singular work. It may not be very complete history but it certainly gives a vivid picture of the person. I wrote a review of it and posted it on a blog site I’d been guesting on for a few years.  (I put it on my blog, too, but I thought the film deserved a signal boost that might do some good, so it went to Dangerous Intersections.)  A month or so after it appearance, the webmaster emailed me to say that he had been contacted by someone claiming to be Harlan Ellison who wanted to talk to me, could he get either my phone number or let me know. My friend was suspicious so passed it by me without responding.

Well, it was from Harlan. His phone number was attached. I thought, you’ve got to be kidding me.

I called.

Harlan wanted to personally thank me for the review. He thought it was insightful.

From that point on, we called each other occasionally. Never a lot, a few times we spoke for over an hour. He offered once to intercede on my behalf with an editor. I thanked him but declined. I think he respected that.

And then came Madcon in 2010.  We spent a goodly amount of time with him there. I honestly did not know what he thought of me, but he made himself available, and during what was a very hectic weekend for him, he was generous with his time.

We thought we would never see him again.

Then came the stroke.

And then the whole Archon affair, of which I’ve already written about.

The last time I saw Harlan was the morning he was leaving for the airport from the Collinsville Doubletree. Donna and I had picked Susan and him up the previous Thursday, others of his friends were taking him back. He had been using our transport wheelchair all weekend (long story, never mind) and this was where he had to leave it. Donna hugged him, I hugged him, he got into the van. The door closed. He looked at me through the window and put his hand on the glass, splayed out. I was a little startled, but I reached up and pressed my hand to glass opposite. He smiled and gave a small nod.

We spoke on the phone a few more times after that. Short conversations. He said he had had a wonderful time at Archon. We needed to come out to see him, to see the house (the wonderful house, Ellison Wonderland). We had no other reason to go to L.A. though, so we prevaricated. Then it was announced that the Nebula Awards would be in L.A. in 2019. We could attend and see Harlan and Susan again. It would work. A bit pricey, but hey. I was planning to call him to tell him. I was going to.

I should have.

Somehow, between the stories (and the Stories) and the few encounters, and then the all-too-brief time when we actually knew each other, he got in. His passing hurts. It’s strange to miss someone you knew so short a time, even if in some ways it was a lifetime.

Harlan Ellison was a singular person. Enormously talented, voracious in his approach to life, generous, unpredictable. Harlan, I think I may say, was a friend.

I miss him.

 

A Very Cool Thing Is Happening In St. Louis

I’ve been mentioning this in various places for a few days now. Time to explain what is going on. Here’s the announcement, official and everything, about Left Bank Books‘ new science fiction/fantasy author series.  This has been in the works for some time and the kick-off event is April 18th.

I’ve been working for Left Bank Books for about six years, give or take, and during that time I’ve been able to influence our science fiction and fantasy section. Modest improvements, some worthy titles that might otherwise have gone unnoticed, and for the last three years I’ve been hosting the monthly reading group, Great Novels of the 22nd Century. This year I’ve been able to start something new with that, but you should come by if you can and find out.  We do some terrific titles every month, first Wednesday, 7:00 PM in the store.

This author series, however, is a bit of a dream come true. A dedicated author series. If this goes well, the future will bring more of the same and even better. We have a sharp, talented events coordinator who has been magnificent in pulling this all together and of course my coworkers are excited and ready to see this take off.  But in order for it to fly, to go to the stars, we need to show attendance. We need people to come out for these events, so we can demonstrate that this is a viable, vital program. So here is the shameless plug and the request for the favor of your presence.

We’re partnering with Archon, our local SF convention, and hoping to turn this into a rich, fascinating, on-going event series that brings in great writers, offers readers of fantastic fiction a chance to come together more often, and will go to the support of this amazing literature. I’m proud and pleased to be part of this and I’m hoping that whatever small influence I may have will induce you to show up and see the show.

For the full schedule of our premier events, go here.

Thank you and see you there.  Ad Astra!

Picking Nits

To some, this may sound petty, but others will know what I mean.

Back when I worked in photography, one of the things that separated the amateurs from the pros had to do with Finish. I did lab work most of my career, what was referred to as “finishing.” Now, at its most basic, this was simply processing the film and printing the pictures, but there was so much more to it than that simple description suggests. Because we weren’t just supposed to print someone’s photographs—we were supposed to make them look good.

And that required a lot of practice, more than a little experience, a bit of expertise, and, most importantly, what that idea meant. Often the difference between a snapshot of Long’s Peak and a photograph of it was largely a matter of how the image was presented. How it was processed, printed, was it then mounted and framed, had care been given to the balance of values across the range of tones, had anyone retouched (this is more to do with printing from negatives where the advent of dust could play havoc with an image and required a patient hand with a fine brush to repair) it, and finally had the printer treated the image with the respect and imagination it merited. As much as the original image itself is a work of art, the production of the print is itself a matter of artistic accomplishment.

What does this have to do with writing and publishing?

I’m glad you asked that question.  In its own way, just as much.

The other day I was handed a self-published book and started reading. I stopped less than two pages in.  (Before you wonder, this had nothing to do with my job, this was a book sent me by a friend.)  Why did I stop? Was the story horrible?

I have no idea. Because the “finishing” was bad. Poor typography, the page layout was not good, and there were transfer artifacts evident throughout. By that I mean the thing was not proofed after it was set up and so paragraphs that should have been indented were not, italics that should have been there was not, special characters were replaced with some kind of word processor code. Correctable mistakes having to do with appearance remained in the product to mangle the reading experience. In short, it was physically unpleasant.

But the writing was not good either. Not so much that the sentences were poor, but many of them were in the wrong place, paragraphs were crammed with whatever the author thought of to put down next in line, and later did not go back to put them in the right place.  Jumbles of sentences and ideas that may or may not have been necessary to the story but in the configuration on the page did nothing but cause bafflement and headache trying to do the editing that ought to have been long before the cover art was even considered.

Which was actually pretty good, that cover art. As if a pretty wrapper could compensate for the amateur mess inside.

The book had been released into the wild too soon.  It needed more work.  It needed “finishing.”

This is an aspect of the whole self-publishing phenomenon I do not understand.  When I worked in photography there were many people I knew who were gleeful amateurs who did their own processing. They had fun. They derived pleasure from printing their own pictures.  None of them would have dreamed of putting what they did in their basement up in a gallery to pass off as professional work.

But there are authors who think nothing of assuming, because they can now get their work between covers and find a way to distribute it, that this somehow makes them equal to professionals who publish through traditional houses. There is a false equivalency based on poorly understood standards.  It is one of the things I find most depressing about the self-publishing industry.  Through this mechanism there is little to require the wanna-bes to do the work necessary to make a good product.

Am I nitpicking? Michelangelo said “Trifles make perfection and perfection is no trifle.” Nits are like dust spots and they spoil the finish.

And it’s not like this is hard to see.  Go into a bookstore and pull a book off the shelf, something published by Harper or FSG or Putnam, Macmillan, Simon & Shuster, and open it up and look at the page. Look.  Does what you just paid money to produce match what you see in terms of font, layout, pagination?  And it is not like this should be that difficult to correct anymore.

Time-consuming, yes.  Just like rewriting and editing are time-consuming.

You can’t rush good finishing. If you do, it will show, and people will be put off by your work.  And if they’re put off, they won’t read it, and then all the work you have put into it will be for nothing.

I needed to get that off my chest.  Thank you for your patience.

Le Guin

Of all the things I thought I would be writing about today, this is not one of them.  Of course I knew she was unwell.  Of course I knew how old she was.  Of course I know all journeys end.

Still, the impact of such endings can dislodge and shock. Because it is difficult to envisage the world continuing with such an absence.

Unlike others, I have read relatively little of Ursula K. Le Guin’s work. The Dispossessed, The Lathe of Heaven, Wizard of Earthsea, The Word For World Is Forest, The Left Hand Of Darkness…a handful of others, short stories. Enough to start a long change in trajectory for my own work and, more importantly, in my apprehension of this thing we do called “science fiction.”

So I want to talk about that instead of reviewing a biography and a bibliography others will more ably do.

Le Guin never wrote the expected. She published in the magazines, her novels came out with the SF label on the spine, some of the covers suggested that a reader might find something like all the rest of the books around them inside. And indeed there was that—interstellar settings, outré physics, aliens, exotic locations. But then there were the bits that refused to sustain the standard pattern.

“I didn’t know Fomalhaut II had all those people besides the trogs,” said Kethro, the curator.

“I didn’t either. There are even some ‘Unconfirmed’ species listed here, that they never contacted. Sounds like time for a more thorough survey mission to the place. Well, now at least we know what she is.”

“I wish there were some way of knowing who she is…” 

Early in the pages of Rocannon’s World we read that exchange and it is a promise and warning that what will follow, for decades, was all about learning who we are. Le Guin took the potential of what we call science fiction to unbury the many selves of sentient life and hold not one but many mirrors up to us. To tell us, over and over again, that who we are is more important than what. That sounds banal, certainly, because after all, isn’t all fiction about that?

Of course, but not in ways that can delineate the artificial from the organic, the applied from the emergent, the structural from the holistic the way science fiction does. Too many things are too often taken for granted, left unexamined and therefore unquestioned, in most literature, and we’re left with portraits that, while often insightful and clear, go only so far in examining the limitations of selfhood, of identity, of the ramifications of social, biological, and technological fabrics that comprise context.

Read The Dispossessed and you see this potential in full flower.

But it is a constant throughout her work. It might be said that her work was always concerned with the problems of self-expression in relation to dynamic systems, be they natural, technological, political—in fact, all three as an amalgam. The interconnections between the self and the community drove her narratives, and intentionally or not she sought balance.  (I think intentionally, oh yes, fully.)

Much has been written and debated about the impact of the Sixties on, well, everything, but within SF in particular it seemed to have been a period of enormous ferment, regeneration, and experimentation. Most of it was ephemeral and soon vanished from memory, as with almost all SF in any given period. Le Guin entered the field with all the appearances of a writer of the Old School, but there was something going on in her work that, quietly and irresistibly, infected what came after. She exemplified, through her writing, the euphemism “the personal is political.”

Getting to know another, really knowing them, is a supremely political act.  It changes everything. Its changes you, them, the context in which this discovery occurs. Being open to such knowing is to be vulnerable, and that leads to unknown possibilities. If all we look for in others is what we already have, then we never know them, and so we preserve ourselves against the possibility of change, of growth, of the pleasures of otherness. That, too, is a deeply political act, the choice to not look, to not know.

To not see.

The Left Hand Of Darkness is entirely involved in this kind of seeing. It is a story of blindnesses and veils and the necessity of seeing anew.

After Le Guin, it is impossible to understand science fiction as less than the most deeply political of literary forms.

It is also impossible to dismiss it as nonliterary. In Le Guin, the range of possible ways of seeing others is expanded beyond any probable comfort zone. She expanded her vision so much that the boundaries that had kept SF neatly barracked cracked and fell open. Oh, certainly she was not the only one, but her assault on the limits of literary convention were all the more effective because they were so pleasurable to read, and once read, impossible to forget. Her work altered your perspective.

After Le Guin, there is no going back to previous standards.

After Le Guin, it is impossible to pretend that change can be forestalled, that the world is complete, that the self and the community can be kept apart to mutual benefit, that politics is ignorable, that others are not us.

After Le Guin, really, the universe is bigger, richer, livelier, more dangerous…and not at all what we might wish to expect.

She was amazing. She amazed.

 

2018

Later I’ll post my favorite posts of the year. For now, it’s too damn cold in my office for that kind of cut-and-paste indulgence.

So let me just wax nostalgic about the year just past.

The things I love are still with me.  Top of the list, Donna.  We’ve been moving through some changes, dealing with stuff and nonsense, and have finally gotten to a place where life can be simply enjoyed again, rather than wrestled with.

Coffey is still full of puppy-ish enthusiasm.  Slower, certainly, but for a 13-year-old dog remarkably spry. No arthritis or other impediments. She sleeps a bit more.  Of course, some of this is stored energy from being by herself a goodly chunk of most days while the humans are at work.  Coffey is a joy.

My friends are all reasonably well.

I have a good job. Some new faces came this year and we had a great year. Our first (annual) book festival came off magnificently and this year’s will be even better. I’ve settled, more or less, into my role as consignment buyer.  Despite every intention to the contrary, I have become an acquisitions editor. It has been an education.  I have been very pleasantly surprised by some of the books I’ve gotten for the store.  I’ve also learned quite a bit about that world and the reasons behind the choices made.

I finished a new novel and turned it in to my agent in July. We wait. I think it may be the best thing I’ve ever done—it is certainly different than anything I’ve ever done, written at a level I don’t think I’ve ever achieved before. Of course, once again, I think I’ve written something that has no real category, is a bit off from the expected. My agent has been tremendous in her support.

I’m now working on the third book of my alternate history trilogy, which has taken far longer and traveled some much stranger roads than I expected. Once more I’m immersed in the Napoleonic Era, trying to get as many things “right” as I can.  This is all but a straight historical in many ways.  I’ve had some surprises with this one, in my research, but I will be glad to finish.  Maybe a couple more months and I’ll have the first draft done.

After that I have some decisions to make. If things don’t change…

This is the first year in a long, long time that I’ve chosen to make resolutions.  No, I won’t tell you what they are.  I don’t need anyone else’s expectations to live up to, this will be hard enough.  But check here in the next few months for an update on at least one of my decisions. We’ll see if I can pull it off.

I may be facing a hard time this year. My dad is not doing well. I’ll leave that as it stands for now.

I managed to get through 51 books this year, cover to cover.  I’ll do a post about those over on the Proximal Eye in the next few weeks.

Healthwise, I seem to be doing okay.  I’m more tired than I like, but everything works, and the other day at the gym some young guy guessed my age at 52. Heh.  If I can be mistaken for 62 when I’m pushing 80 I will be pleased.

I don’t know if I’ve become more stoic and accepting of how things are or if I’m just too tired to give the same damn that I once did. Almost nothing has gone according to plan, which is to be expected, but enough went close enough to be a source of mixed satisfaction and frustration.  One thing this past year that caused me to reassess my attitude came from a former coworker, a young writer whose first novel was released to considerable acclaim and a degree of commercial success I frankly envy. Talking about it, though, she suggested that she hoped to be as successful as I am. This baffled me. I do not consider myself successful at all.  “How do you figure that?” I asked. “You have 12 books out,” she said. “Yeah, but they didn’t do very well.”  “You have 12 books out.”

That was it. I had sustained a publishing career long enough and well enough to have put out a body of work she thought admirable. It forced me to reassess my own standards. What do I mean by success? I’d fallen into the usual, equating it with money. Well, that certainly is one measure of success, but not the only one.

I’d always aimed for the condition of sustaining myself materially by the work—that since what I wanted to do was to write, then the writing had to pay the bills.  I never reached that point. Came close, but it has slipped further and further away from that moment. I’d gotten into the habit of thinking myself a failure.

But there are other metrics, and my coworker confronted me with one, and I realized that rejecting her assessment would have been cruel. To her, certainly, but to myself as well.

I’m still working through all the implications of that. I still want to be able to write for a living, but it has, for now, become less an issue.

With that in mind, 2018 awaits.

Of course we are now living in a shit show nationally.  All the fights waged in youth seem in need to fighting again. I’ve been vocal here about that and will continue to be.  But the fact is, I am a lucky, lucky man. I have so much, from great people, and I’ve had and will continue to have opportunities to do more.  So many people never get the chance.

So may the coming year offer for us all the chance to realize the good life can hold and let us all have some of it.  And be aware of what is good.  And that we’ve experienced it.

Travel well, travel far.

Trivial Lit?

In a recent article in the Guardian, we learn that science fiction seems to have a deleterious effect on intelligent reading among certain test subjects. In a study conducted by researchers, the appearance of certain words—like “airlock” or “alien” or related descriptors having to do with setting—acted as signals that the story concerned lacked merit and thus could be dismissed as “not serious.”  Consequently, less connection with character occurred. Worse, even the basic recognition that the story being read was in all other respects identical to the “literary” version they had just read to which they had paid due attention.

I was reminded of an essay by Samuel R. Delany in which he noted the disconnect in decoding SF texts among certain adults whose children navigated those waters with ease. In this case, Delany was describing an interpretive failure, that when encountering a phrase like “the asteroid minding operation” there was a loss on the part of certain readers. They simply could not visualize that which was being described. Delany was noting that reading protocols are constructs and we have to learn them, the earlier the better. In other essays he went further and showed how a literary reading of a sentence could differ strikingly from a science fictional reading of the exact same sentence ( “she turned on her left side”, for instance ) and that, for the SF reader, that tension between the mundane and the speculative was a significant part of the pleasure of the SF experience.

But this study is different. It does not demonstrate a failure on the part of readers to decode the science fiction story—it shows a dismissal of the story as trivial because it is science fiction. Hence, no attempt is then made to find its other merits or even to recognize that such merits are even present. That the “trigger” words allowed the reader to simply recategorize the story as shallow and insignificant, because, I assume, its all that “space nonsense” and “kid stuff.”

Which is sadly unsurprising, even today, long past the time when this was the reaction on the part of the vast majority of readers.

However, it is new—or newish— in one respect, which is the a priori assumption not that the SF text makes no sense but that it is necessarily trivial. An assumption that, well, it’s not incomprehensible, it’s just not worth comprehending as anything other than…

So all the usual qualities of literary fiction which may be present are missed because the effort to find and respond to them is not made due to the shift in setting and æsthetic.

We might call this provincialism.

It occurred to me that the reverse happens for possibly the same reasons. That the seasoned SF reader may well dismiss a literary work because all those trigger words are not present, and therefore the expectations encoded in the story are weighted toward those literary values which the provincialist assumes cannot be present in a science fiction story.

Or, at least, those words are not present in sufficient degree to counter the presence of those other qualities and thus make it obvious that the story in hand requires attention to all those other things. Which may well be the very reasons a given reader has abandoned straight up literary fiction in the first place.

We might call this parochialism.

(I recall as a stridently biased youth having arguments about such things and declaring, quite seriously, “I don’t give a damn about character, I want event!” In other words, all the things that make a work of literature valuable having to do with empathy and pathos and the possibility of learning something about life just got in the way of what I considered the genuinely worthwhile aspect of a story, namely the gadgets, the setting, the plot, the novelty. This is a response to exoticism.  Partly this is an indication of immaturity, the inability to step outside yourself and into someone else’s head, and partly this is inexperience as  reader.  But largely I think this is a consequence of the insularity of an inferiority complex.  Who gives a damn about people who don’t give a damn about you? Which, when you think about it, in terms of fiction is kind of absurd.)

The recent raging against change within the SF community strikes me as a species of this syndrome.

For the most part, this problem erodes with exposure and experience. But one has to know what the problem is to begin with.

SF has become more accepted among the so-called mainstream, but it would be a shame if it had become accepted not as an equal to mundane literature but only as comfortable novelty with no real merit.  I doubt that’s the case and I have reservations about certain aspects of the study, but it would make for a worthwhile colloquium—or maybe just a good panel at a science fiction convention.

Difficult Books

Change of angst.

I saw one of those clickbait surveys, 200 “difficult” books, that challenge you by offering titles to select and then rating your score. I took it because it’s amusing to see what the zeitgeist thinks is worthwhile literature, and this one was better than some, but several of the titles gave me pause, thinking, that’s a difficult book?

I wonder what criteria are being used, other than perhaps page count and venerable authors.  Also, what do they mean by “difficult”—conceptually challenging or just a slog?  I mean, certainly Atlas Shrugged is a “difficult” book, but not the same way Ulysses is, or even the same way Oliver Twist is.  Ulysses requires some intellectual acumen on the part of a reader, some familiarity with history and literature, a bit of theology, and an ability to recognize human foible in any of dozens of various guises.  Atlas Shrugged merely requires a strong stomach and a lot of patience. Being tone deaf to good literature would help as well. And of course what the latter has to say about the human condition vis a vis economics is meaningless drivel compared to the portrayal of class abuse in Oliver Twist.  Telling the difference and knowing why the one doesn’t stack up to the other would be a good start to determining what qualifications one is using for “difficult” reads.

But it’s a good question, what qualifies as a difficult—in this case, read a challenging—book.  And by challenging I mean a work that forces you to think about the text and risk change by having read it deeply and honestly.

Admittedly, there are some novels which are merely difficult through obscurantism. They’re hard because the writer didn’t have much to say but didn’t want to admit that.  They usually don’t last past the life of the author. Sometimes they don’t last past the initial print run.  But the difficulty of the structure and the sentences and the fog of pseudointellectual posturing is in these instances little more than a guarantee of early extinction.

The problem is, sometimes a really good work bears some resemblance to such work. It becomes easy to overlook the real virtues of such novels because audience for them is harder to find.

Take Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Disclaimer: I do not care for this novel. I find it difficult to enjoy the sentences. When someone pointed out to me that it has really funny parts, I was surprised.  The torture of the sentences prevented my ever seeing that, but I was willing to be shown. I’ve been through again, recently, and I’m prepared to admit that it is a Great Novel.  But it is seriously difficult.  And part of the difficulty is that Melville loaded his sentences with multiple meanings, subtext, and unpleasant reality.  It is difficult because what it has to say is difficult to say in such a way that the meaning will get past the innate cultural barriers to recognition.

But it survived because that recognition is to be found and eventually people found it and the impact was enormous.

It bears multiple readings.  Unpacking it takes time. Such a book demands the two things modern readers seem to lack the most:  time and patience.

But going through that list of 200 “difficult” books what I found mainly were books that are long and involved and in some instances convoluted (Gravity’s Rainbow, Infinite Jest) and books with Reputations. The latter are the kinds of books you might find on readers’ shelves, but rarely read.  They know somehow they should read them, but they just haven’t.  And may never.  Because…well, they’re hard.  They reward patience, necessitate experience, require a bit of preparation, and yield nothing to casual taste.

It put me in mind of some of our recent teacup typhoons in science fiction.  Why struggle to understand something that makes the brain sweat when all the thrills and reassurance that you are smart can be found in the shallower waters of quicker reads?

Well, the answer is unsatisfying to a particular kind of reader.  You read the hard books because they make you more.

I won’t say “better” because I don’t know quite what that means in this context (or whether that sort of judgment has any place in talking about literature), but the expansion of the psyché is a real thing and it is only achieved by constantly taking on the difficult.  Only by doing so do you reach a point where you can discern the real difference between something like Atlas Shrugged (dense but superficial, and in many ways fraudulent) and a Gravity’s Rainbow (dense but meaningful, expansive and revelatory).  But more to the point, a book like Atlas Shrugged will not change you—if you are open to its message, all it will do is pacify your doubts and reinforce your prejudices, without ever challenging you to think about people or history in a different way, while the Pynchon cannot help but call into question pat beliefs and unsettle comfortable preconceptions.

So when such lists are constructed, it’s worth asking: how will these books make me different or new?  How well do they tell the truth?  How much do they expose about self-deception, deceit, and the lies of the world?  That’s where the “difficult” part is.

A thousand pages of froth changes nothing.  It just takes a long time to get through.

Annual Pose

Okay, so maybe this is going to be a thing. I think I put my vanity in a box and on a shelf because I don’t wish to be vain. I am, somewhat. I am saved from being an ass about it by being basically too lazy to really  attend to it, at least to the extent of making myself an object of derision. But it’s there, I admit it.

Most of my vanity has to do with the interior. I want to be a certain kind of person. I wish people to see the kind of person I’m trying to be. And I want what they see to be genuine. Maybe “vanity” is the wrong word, since too often it attaches to matters of surface only. And maybe I use that word to caution myself to pay attention to what matters.

In any case, I work at maintaining certain standards, both physically and mentally. I am not as successful at any of it as I would like to be, but it’s the journey, right? Whatever.

I turned 63 this year. I cannot quite get my head around that. In another generation I would be two years from falling into an actuarial expectation of being dead.  I would be spent, replete with health problems, fading.  When I was a child, 65 was the age at which people died.  Today?

But that’s not even the weirdest part.  The weird part is the history that I have personally lived through, knowing it as history, and being in a position to represent some of that history.  The other weird part is that, intellectually, I still see myself as somewhere around the mid to late 30s.

As I say, weird.  However, I’ve been posting annual updates like this–not as regularly as perhaps I should, but I see now that it might be a useful thing.

So. This morning, after coming home from the gym, I asked Donna to take a couple of pictures.

 

 

I’m weighing in at round 160.  I no longer bother getting on a scale.  I go by how well my clothes fit and how out-of-breath I get running down the street.  (Yes, I occasionally break into a sprint when I’m walking the dog, just because.  I can still do three blocks at a good run.)

The hair is thinner, grayer, the wrinkles a bit deeper, especially when I’m facing into the sun.

I feel tired a great deal of the time.

But aside from working out regularly, I work a full-time job, still play music, and I’m still trying to make the best-seller lists.

And chores.  Don’t forget chores.

But–most importantly–I still feel like I have options.  “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

A writer.

A photographer.

A musician.

A friend.

Someone people might possibly be glad to know.

 

The thing is, how to know when or if any of that is achieved?  I have to be comfortable in my own skin first.  And my skin is…

Well, not, perhaps, for me to say.  But I have every intention of sticking around long enough to find out.

So this is 63.

Let me post another photograph, to follow, of something maybe a little more interesting.  (Remember, one of the things I want to be is  photographer…?)  And leave off with something more abstract to contemplate.

Thank you all for putting up with me all this time.

 

 

 

The Persistence of Civilization

I wanted to get this down before the thoughts and feelings of yesterday fade and I start to over-intellectualize everything.

Civilization did not end yesterday. Just in case anyone failed to notice. Nibiru did not slam into the Earth as some predicted. We did not throw down to North Korea (yet). And there remains football.

And though here in my hometown, the local politics have of late been strained, to say the least, we are not descending into mindless brutality.

Let me offer the picture of two throngs of people gathered to make cultural statements.

Yesterday the first of what we all hope will be an annual event occurred in the Central West End of St. Louis.  Bookfest.  A section of one street was closed off, there were vendors on the street, a stage where live music was performed all day, and author events held in a number of local establishments. The whole thing got started Friday night with a presentation by Sherman Alexie at the Sheldon Theater in our theater district. It continued then with events for kids, teens, and adults of all ages, featuring over forty of the best writers currently working. Poets, novelists, essayists, we had them all.

And people came.

Hundreds. Venues were filled to listen, to partake, to soak in the rarefied and uplifting gestalt of written arts, performance, and conversation.

We unveiled a new commemorative statue in front of Left Bank Books to William S. Burroughs, completing the four-star authors corner which already included Kate Chopin, Tennessee Williams, and T.S. Eliot.

People came to hear writers talk about craft and content, tell stories, read from their work, engage in the carpentry of culture.

In other words, Making Civilization.

It was amazing.

In other parts of the metropolitan area, others gathered, as they have been gathering since last week, to protest injustice. The response has been considerably different, and some people see this as evidence of the end of our civilization. Maybe not totally, but protest to them is viewed as cracks in the dam, as if civilization is a pool that must be contained by thick walls and held in place, immobile. Immaculate.

I humbly suggest that the protests and our gathering to celebrate the literary arts are manifestations of the same work—making civilization.

Gathering decorously to listen to speakers and then sagely nod, basking in the gloaming of nuanced cultural expression is fundamentally part of angry protest condemning abuse of power and a demand for justice. You cannot, ultimately, have one without the other—that is, Civilization without Justice—and you can have neither of those if people will not show up to build them.

I participated in yesterday’s festivities, I was on the agenda as a writer, but I also work for Left Bank Books and spent a good part of the day doing the business of facilitating the events.  I am now adding what I can to the holism that must be felt and recognized in order for our civilization to grow and become better and richer.

It is easy to watch the news and perhaps think maybe fleeing to the country, stockpiling for the coming Dark Age, fearing the people two blocks over who we’ve never met are all rational responses to a process of inevitable decay.  It’s a very myopic response.  Because while the one goes on, the other things continue and grow and make us better. We are not one thing, even if  we are all in this together, and when someone says we have a right to assemble to buy books, listen to music, and enjoy the arts but not to condemn injustice, then a major truth is being overlooked.

Or never recognized in the first place.

I was part of the discussion on science fiction.  My copanelists—Charlies Jane Anders, Ann Leckie, Annalee Newitz—all spoke to the life-affirming, onward-building, ever-optimistic nature of science fiction, which says tomorrow Will Be and more often than not Will Be Better.  But it’s not just SF—it’s the fact that people came to drink from the font of art all day long. That people showed up who not only knew who Sherman Alexie is but also who William S. Burroughs was and who responded to the resonance we all create by the work we do.

The world is not going to end.  We’re in an awkward, in many ways ugly and incomprehensible period right now, but in the mix we have light and joy and deep connection.

Celebrate.