Criticism

The Future of the Fantastic: The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 1

In this space I was going to review, as promised, the book ParaSpheres: Extending Beyond the Spheres of Literary and Genre Fiction: Fabulist and New Wave Fabulist Stories. This anthology turned out to not be very good for a number of reasons I won't bother to enumerate; with stuff from very small presses, a bad review just seems egregious and unnecessary—no one's reading the book anyway. Instead I'll be reviewing The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 1, edited by Jonathan Strahan, which turned out to be excellent, and easily the best of the anthologies I've reviewed so far in this series.

Some Notes and Corrections on the Short Story

In looking again at the article I wrote on the nature of the short story, I realize perhaps I was a little too hard on the NBCC piece I was criticising. I think I was just so taken aback by the very narrow definition of "art" and the glib manner of dismissing old short stories as "not art" that it was difficult for me to be fair.

The thing is, film and television did change the short story. Yes, Joyce's Dubliners was part of a continuum of naturalism that reached back well into the 19th century and represented what short fiction would become, but its dominance was not an inevitability simply because modernism and realism were the new fashions. Indeed, while those things have dominated literary fiction in novels, they did not dominate novels completely, as any glance at the New York Times best-seller list, replete with its Stephen Kings and Harry Potters will tell you. Nor did it even dominate short-stories completely (only mostly), since work has continued to be done in the genre ghettos and published in places like Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Asimov's Science Fiction.

When the short story was created in the nineteenth century, it was the right form at the right time. Literacy had expanded to unprecedented proportions in the West, and industrialism had created the means for many more publications to exist than before. In other words, there was a public who would desire written stories, and there was an environment that could produce lots of magazines and newspapers happy to give it to them. The short story exploded, coming to the height of its popularity around the turn of the 20th century when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells walked the Earth. The short story was something people could read over coffee in the morning, or with a beer after they got off work and wound down, a quick hit of story, here and then gone.

As film became popular, it's true the the popularity of the short story began to fall off, and when television came around the short stories' narrative hold on the public was thoroughly broken. They no longer needed short fiction to get quick doses of entertainment. Once a lucrative career, short fiction became more and more difficult to make a living at, and the kind of people who really wanted to make a living entertaining people with stories started writing television and movies, which quickly became very lucrative indeed. The only people left to write short fiction were the people who really loved the form, or sought to use it as a stepping stone to success writing novels. Without the audience, publications stopped publishing short fiction, except for a few hold-outs like the New Yorker, Harpers or Playboy and some few genre magazines whose pay rates are ludicrously low. The form was really kept alive by literary journals and universities, exactly the kind of places which preferred Joycean Modernism, and that is the real reason why Joycean Modernism came to be the dominant style in short fiction.

Which is to say that the essay at the NBCC on the history of the short story isn't wrong, exactly, it's merely wrong-headed. And I think that with the rise of the Internet, with people reading off of screens all the time anyway, perhaps it's possible that the short story could make a quiet comeback. The trick would be to have short stories compelling enough to tear people away from Wikipedia or MySpace. Maybe they could read them over coffee in the morning, or a beer after work...

The Nature of the Short Story

Debunking a false history of the short story put forth by the National Book Critics Circle blog, explaining the real history of the form and how a short story is like a pop song.

Round-Up

Sorry about the radio silence all week. To make up for it, it's time for a Wet Asphalt Super 'Round the Web Round Up:

First up, the Guardian gives us a wonderful essay about James Baldwin's time in Paris, and how it reflected on his novels and his decision to move back to the States.

The Reading Experience finds academic criticism unreadable, because it seems to only be aimed at other academics and entirely consumed with a dialog that people outside of the Academy have no knowledge of or interest in, criticism that comments on criticism commenting on criticism ad nauseam. I have to agree with this for the most part; after all, academic criticism is what produces the unreadable garbage pumped out by Judith Butler (as a less-than-arbitrary example). This is exactly why we need intelligent, thoughtful criticism outside of the academy. Like on the Internet, for instance...

Ed Champion reminds us to read a book! Read a book! Read a mother-fucking book!

The American Scholar wonders if we shouldn't be more permissive about love between professors and pupils. This essay also has a telling summary of the professor-student relationship cliché found over and over again in film, from Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe to Wonder Boys:

What’s going on here? If the image of the absent-minded professor stood for benevolent unworldliness, what is the meaning of the new academic stereotype? Why are so many of these failed professors also failed writers? Why is professional futility so often connected with sexual impropriety? (In both Terms of Endearment and We Don’t Live Here Anymore, "going to the library" becomes a euphemism for "going to sleep with a student.") Why are these professors all men, and why are all the ones who are married such miserable husbands?

Meanwhile, in Locus, Cory Doctorow discusses futuristic vs. futurismic.

SF films and TV are great fonts of futurismic imagery: R2D2 is a fully conscious AI, can hack the firewall of the Death Star, and is equipped with a range of holographic projectors and antipersonnel devices — but no one has installed a $15 sound card and some text-to-speech software on him, so he has to whistle like Harpo Marx. Or take the Starship Enterprise, with a transporter capable of constituting matter from digitally stored plans, and radios that can breach the speed of light.

The non-futurismic version of NCC-1701 would be the size of a softball (or whatever the minimum size for a warp drive, transporter, and subspace radio would be). It would zip around the galaxy at FTL speeds under remote control. When it reached an interesting planet, it would beam a stored copy of a landing party onto the surface, and when their mission was over, it would beam them back into storage, annihilating their physical selves until they reached the next stopping point. If a member of the landing party were eaten by a green-skinned interspatial hippie or giant toga-wearing galactic tyrant, that member would be recovered from backup by the transporter beam. Hell, the entire landing party could consist of multiple copies of the most effective crewmember onboard: no redshirts, just a half-dozen instances of Kirk operating in clonal harmony.

The most interesting part of this essay is Doctorow's notion that people's vision of the future is directly related to how people feel while they are imagining it.

Futurism has a psychological explanation, as recounted in Harvard clinical psych prof Daniel Gilbert's 2006 book, Stumbling on Happiness. Our memories and our projections of the future are necessarily imperfect. Our memories consist of those observations our brains have bothered to keep records of, woven together with inference and whatever else is lying around handy when we try to remember something. Ask someone who's eating a great lunch how breakfast was, and odds are she'll tell you it was delicious. Ask the same question of someone eating rubbery airplane food, and he'll tell you his breakfast was awful. We weave the past out of our imperfect memories and our observable present

Bloggasm discusses the weirdness behind Amazon.com's most frequent reviewer, Harriet Klausner, who reviews "an average of four books a day, seven days a week".

On a depressing note, the Reading Experience (again) looks at an anthology devoted entirely to short stories begging to be made into movies, a kind of "American Idol brought into print." Sigh.

And lastly, is Harry Potter a bastion of psychological realism, revealing everything that's lacking in contemporary literary fiction?

Criticism vs. Reviewing

Back in April, I recommended people read Cynthia Ozick's article "Literary Entrails" in the April edition of Harper's Magazine. In that article Ozick differentiates between "literary critcism" and "reviewing" as two distinct activities. Ozick is not alone in making this distinction; The Reading Experience, for instance, recently pointed out the frequent conflation of the two, calling reviewing a "genre of arts journalism." He even accuses the National Book Critics Circle of "deliberately (dishonestly?) blurring the lines between book reviews and criticism." Yet he doesn't quite give a definition of criticism, or tell us how, exactly, to recognize the one from the other. On our own website I once called New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani a "major critic" and had one of our readers comment "Kakutani is not a major critic -- Kakutani is a major reviewer. There's a big difference." At the time I thought this was a good point, but then the more I thought about it the more confused I became.

The Future of the Fantastic: Conjunctions 39: The New Wave Fabulists

After being thoroughly blown away by Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology, it was with great anticipation that I picked up Conjunctions 39: The New Wave Fabulists, it's corollary across the aisles, as it were. And indeed, The New Wave Fabulists should be the more notable effort, since Feeling Very Strange pleas for SF's legitimacy from within the SF section of the bookstore itself, which strikes one as preaching to the choir, while Conjunctions places SF writers in the "Literary Fiction" category and tries to get the attention of those people not already reading it, people who might have never heard of Gene Wolfe or Neil Gaiman. This is the harder sell, and the work presented needs to be really compelling. Some of it is, but a distressing amount of it is not, is in fact not even particularly well written, especially compared to the stellar level of work presented in Feeling Very Strange.

Still Rising: On the Deathless Relevance of Earnest Hemingway

The possibility that becoming the most distinctive American prose writer of the twentieth century would have its considerable drawbacks probably did not occur to the twenty-seven-year-old author of The Sun Also Rises when it was published in 1926. Despite some powerful literary advocates, Hemingway's first two books had flopped; copies were not even available in Hemingway's hometown of Oak Park, Illinois. His third book—a cocky, strutting, elliptical novel about British and American expatriates behaving as badly as their times (and Hemingway's censors) allowed them—changed all that. As Lionel Trilling wrote only thirteen years after Sun's publication, Hemingway,"more than any writer of our time... has been under glass, watched, checked up on, predicted, suspected, warned." The book's much-heralded style, as liberating as a magic spell for its author, eventually became a kind of aesthetic stockade. By 1961 serial shock treatments at the Mayo Clinic had left the arch mage depressed,unable to write,needlessly lecturing his wife about her "expenses," and convinced that the FBI was reading his mail and wiretapping his phone. Hemingway's suicide of that year was not only an act of escape from the various furies, real and imagined, in steady pursuit of him; it was the explosive period to the only sentence he could bring himself to compose. For this reason any writer who has been compared to Hemingway feels a certain clammy shudder: as it turned out, not even Hemingway could survive the comparison.

Tiding You Over

I know it's been light around here lately — I've been busy then sick then busy again. Here's some reading to keep you occupied:

The Washington Post wonders if short stories are having their day, and why they don't sell as well as novels, with some interesting sales numbers.

The New York Times ponders what makes one book a best-seller and another a flop, and points out how backwards the publishing industry is.

And finally, Wet Asphalt alum and our nominee for greatest living critic Tom Bissell is looking for the resting places of the apostles. Which has nothing to do with fiction or poetry but is hella cool anyway.

The Future of Book Reviews?

Critical Mass the blog of the National Book Critics Circle continues its campaign to save newspaper book reviews with coverage and participation in a protest over the elimination of the book review section in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A recent post from them, which I can't help but feel was aimed at least partially at us, says that bloggers and print reviews should all just get along, emphasizing that there are many great blogs out there, and not all reviewers are reactionary coots.

Meanwhile, the New York Times weighs in, writing:

To some authors and critics, these moves amount to yet one more nail in the coffin of literary culture. But some publishers and literary bloggers — not surprisingly — see it as an inevitable transition toward a new, more democratic literary landscape where anyone can comment on books.

Of course, not everyone is so hot on the idea of blogging as the future, though others think print reviewers have it coming.

In deference to the NBCC I would like to say a few things on the subject of print reviewing versus online reviewing. It has been pointed out that the readership of lit blogs is different than the readership of newspapers. There is truth to this. Lit blogs and online magazines like this one tend to attract a certain kind of techno-savvy bibliophile, the kind of person who both wants to know about every hot new writer and is clued-in enough to be able to find the blogs that will tell her. The vast majority of book readers out there aren't this person, and there are still a lot of people who will just idly flip through the book pages of the New York Times or the Village Voice (or their online versions) just to see if there's anything interesting to keep an eye out for. These people don't want to check their RSS feeds every day to see what Ed is saying, not because Ed isn't interesting but because that's not how they want to spend their time. The vast majority of readers aren't hard-core bibliophiles, nor should they be. In fact, it is very important that we have a book world in which ordinary people will pick up novels in the same way that they'd go to see a movie or sit down to watch a television show. And this is the real reason we need book reviews, because (especially in the near-total absence of publicity) book reviews are how ordinary people find out about most books. And these book reviews can't just be on blogs that are primarily read by bibliophiles, because ordinary people won't read them.

This isn't to say that print is the only answer. Sites like Metacritic.com do an excellent job of aggregating reviews of the latest books and, just as importantly, putting them right next to movie and video game reviews as a natural part of the cultural world. (And not suspiciously missing as they are on, say, Technorati and Digg.) It's for this reason that I've often flirted with the idea of expanding Wet Asphalt to include coverage of film and television. Because, as bibliophiles, what we need to be doing is not just talking to other bibliophiles, but reaching out to the rest of the world. And that effort to reach out is also why book review sections in newspapers are so important. Because there are so many people in our culture today who seem to think books, and more-so fiction, and even more-so poetry, are all culturally irrelevant. And that's what this is really about, and what I think most people are missing. What we're witnessing is a shift between prose books as part of a larger cultural conversation to prose books as a niche market beloved by a small number of enthusiasts and ignored by everyone else. (Perplexingly enough, this is practically the opposite of what's happening right now with comics, graphic novels and manga.) This shift is a very bad thing for those of us who care about books, and our every effort needs to be in the direction of shifting things back.

And this is why I support the NBCC's efforts to save book review sections in newspapers, and why you should too.

The World's Shortest Critical Manifesto

A very short manifesto laying out a plan for literary criticism in the future.