Fiction

No Really, Dune Fucking Sucks: Part One, an introduction to the project

Lots of people really likeDune. It's spawned a movie, a couple of TV mini-series, several video games, at least one comic book adaptation, and a continuing series of books written by the book's late author's son in order to cash in on the gullible mouth breathers who think there is value in the franchise. The pro-Dune camp believes that this book and the series it spawned are "classic," "masterfully crafted," "well-planned," novels. Do a quick google search, and you will find no shortage of people who are willing to ascribe adjective phrases like "beautifully written," "elegant," and "brillant" to this novel.

I respectfully—well, sort of— disagree with this assessment, and taking a page out of slacktivist's close reading of Left Behind, given how widespread respect for Dune is even occasionally outside of the science fiction ghetto, I think it's high time someone pointed out how terribly flawed, immoral, and transparently lacking in complexity Dune actually is.

I don't know how many entries this is going to take, but beginning next week after I've been able to procure another copy of the book, I'll be posting a page by page and occasionally line-by-line commentary on the book in the hopes of exposing it for the massively deficient and incompetent piece of literature that it is.

All comments are welcome, particularly from those who think that there's something of value in this trash that I'm missing.

I'm looking forward to the project and expect that it will take me some time to complete. I hope you all enjoy it, or at least learn to enjoy Dune a little bit less.

Plainsong Encomium for Another Dead Hero

I read Infinite Jest when I was eighteen. I picked it up on a lark at the Tower Records bookstore on Newbury Street in Boston. I needed something to read to take my mind off the music that had encompassed all of my waking brain time in my first semester at Berklee. It was thick and I figured it would keep me busy for a while at least. Little did I know.

Four months later, after dilligently working through that monster of a novel, I was quite possibly a different person. It was precisely the right book for me to read at precisely the right time in my life. I'm not sure it would be possible for me to state completely how much an influence his voice had on both my writing and my views on art in general. suffice it to say that I doubt there is anyone else I've ever read who had a greater impact.

This future that promises no more brilliance from that man's brain, when there should have been so much more, is not as good as the one we had a few days ago. His is a terrible loss to American literature.

Over the years, I've known a few brilliant people who decided to take their own lives. It never makes any sense. Having sat on that fence once or twice myself, I can't even fathom my own thoughts in that direction, and feel very grateful for the confidence I've found that I will never go there again. Suicide is one of the great tragedies of our form of life, a gesture at eternity that expresses a pain that defies words. I'm not a religious person, but I hope with all my being that whatever pain Wallace was feeling he has found some peace and relief from it now. I hope he knew at the end how much he and his work meant to people who, like me, had never even met him. We are all darkened a bit when our brightest lights go out. There is no question in my mind that David Foster Wallace was such a light.

Godspeed sir, my life has been better because of what you have given to us all. May you rest in peace.

Fiction Magazines of the Future

Daniel Green recently responded to Ed Champion's musings on what fiction magazines should be like. He writes:

...its hard to argue that with the proliferation of literary magazines, now abetted by the constant appearance of new literary journals online, that there isn't enough short fiction published in this country. Indeed, most of what is published in the existing journals goes largely unread.

True enough, certainly. But,

Publishing magazines "exclusively devoted to fiction" that "the public will buy," as futile as this enterprise would surely turn out to be, could only mean to dumb down the current tenor of literary magazines, to publish more conventional, more "accessible" fiction. I can't see what purpose this would serve. Such fiction would not be "better" for its readers than Desperate Housewives. It would identify fiction as just another entertainment option, a way to pass some time while easing up on the electricity bill. You are not better off reading a bland and undemanding short story than you are watching a bland and undemanding tv show. If just weaning a few people away from visual entertainment back to print is the goal, forget it. Not enough people will convert to make the effort worthwhile.

This seems to me a fundamental misunderstanding of what Ed was trying to say, and moreover it continues the assumption that for something to be accessible to general public it must be dumb or bland, a notion that I've objected to many times. We know that there's intelligent, interesting work that is widely loved; why point to Desperate Housewives when you can point to Lost or Deadwood? Just because something's entertaining doesn't at all mean it's bland and undemanding, and the notion that for something to be of high quality it must somehow not entertain is crazy. However, Green then writes,

What is needed is not more short story publications "exclusively devoted to fiction" that appeal more widely but fewer publications devoted exclusively to fiction (or poetry, for that matter) and more that appeal to the discerning audience for serious fiction that actually exists. What is needed is for editors of literary magazines, both established and up-and-coming, to not just publish fiction shorn of all context and mixed together in an otherwise indigestible stew but to indicate, both through editorial commentary and consistent editorial choices, what they think is important about the fiction they publish. Why have they selected it? What larger vision of the possibilities of short fiction does the selection illustrate? In my opinion, the "miscellany" approach practiced by most literary magazines--by which the "best fiction available" is printed, with little or no indication of what makes it the "best"--makes all too many of them useless; I can only make my way through a few of them, trying to find the "best" in a scattershot fashion, before I put them aside and conclude it just isn't worth my time (and sometimes money) to prospect for fiction in this way.

Which is absolutely right on, and the idea of publishing fiction, criticism and commentary with a very particular context and aesthetic was the guiding idea for this site. It makes me wonder, should we be talking more about what we publish and why we publish it? We've been fortunate enough to publish some pretty great stuff, and maybe we should do more to tell you why, what criteria exactly we're using to judge it.

In fact, one of the things I like about sf magazines and anthologies over literary ones is that they tend to have more of the editor and the author talking about their work, a few paragraphs before or after to help draw you in or give you context. It's also something I like about One Story's interviews with their own authors that give you some background. My fear is that people are seeing the fiction and poetry on this site and ignoring it, even if they like reading the commentary. And, let me tell you, most of the time on this site, the fiction and poetry is where it's at. This is partially because the commentary is mostly written by me, and the fiction and poetry is written by other people, and so I have some critical and editorial distance.

How to Save Fiction Magazines

Warren Ellis has written a series of posts about sf short fiction magazines which relate to the state of literary magazines and the larger issue of the survival of short fiction. Magazine sales overall are up, you see, and yet sales of the major sf fiction magazines are down. The problem? These magazines aren't designed to be wanted:

i-D Magazine, with its famous “wink” portrait covers, at once put-on and come-on, seducing with its knowledge of The New Scene and yet laughing at its transience. The Arts & Crafts conceits of The Believer, the subtle comedy of the covers, balancing hipster here and intellectual there.

These are things that are designed to be wanted. We are supposed to get pleasure from viewing and handling these objects. Things that are designed to be wanted do the job of drawing our eye to them on the newsagent’s shelf. And that’s the key.

Subscription sales are great, but they’re almost a closed system. To survive, new accounts must constantly be injected into it. And that chiefly happens through people finding a magazine on a rack and thinking, yes, I’d like to have this, and wouldn’t it be nicer if it was delivered straight to my house?

He adds later:

But you know what? ASIMOV’S, ANALOG, F&SF — they don’t think they need saving. I mean, they haven’t changed for years, have they? They’re not designed to be wanted because they don’t want to be wanted, not really. They want to be left alone to do their thing, and they don’t want any loud new people in the room. They serve a dwindling audience, and they have to be aware of that — so they have to be in it to simply serve that audience, to provide that presumably cosy experience to their people until the last light goes out. Otherwise they would have done something different years ago. This is why those three magazines have a web presence that can charitably be described as “vestigial.” That’s not a dishonourable thing.

Cory Doctorow over on Boing Boing chimes in

I think the biggest impediment to the magazines' sales is that there's no easy way for people who love the stories in them to bring them to the attention of other, potential customers. By the time you've read the current issue and found a story you want everyone else to read, the issue isn't on the stands anymore and the best you can do is to try to get your pals to shell out to pay for an ebook edition.

...

If I were running the mags, I'd pick a bunch of sfnal bloggers and offer them advance looks at the mag, get them to vote on a favorite story to blog and put it online the week before the issue hits the stands. I'd podcast a second story, and run excerpts from the remaining stories in podcast. I'd get Evo Terra to interview the author of a third story for The Dragon Page. I'd make every issue of every magazine into an event that thousands of people talked about, sending them to the bookstores to demand copies -- and I'd offer commissions, bonuses, and recognition to bloggers who sold super-cheap-ass subscriptions to the print editions.

Sure it's lot of work, and a huge shift in the way the mags do business. But hell, how many more years' worth of 13 percent declines can the magazines hack?

Part of what's troubling about this is that if my own experience is any indication, sf short fiction is better than its ever been. So it's not quality that's hurting the sf magazines, and assuming there is still a potential audience for this stuff at all then the problem is packaging, publicity and perhaps medium.

Back when I first started complaining about literary magazines, my main complaint was the size and price. But it's true that McSweeney's is doing well (they "print 20,000 copies an issue") and it's precisely because of their design and image and ability to promote themselves. One Story, our old favorite, also has an innovative design and presentation, but I worry about them because they're subscription-only and their main promotional plan seems to involve trips to writer's conferences and MFA programs which invite a kind of incestuous ceiling of popularity. Perhaps this is uncharitable, they do go to the Brooklyn Book Festival and have a blog and a good web presence. But I think the answer for One Story might be a better web presence; which is to say, to put all their stories online, complete. Doctorow's been exploring the idea that giving things away online helps sell print copies for quite some time; he's given away all his books online and the sales of print copies have made him a successful novelist. The reason One Story's format is so compelling is because each story is such a small, portable little booklet. I think that if they put their stories online, then people who found them would be impressed by their quality and want very much to subscribe so that reading them would be that much easier. And this may be the ideal format for the fiction magazine: a free online edition, with the ability to obtain single issues either by subscription or of individual issues—as in, you start reading a story, realize you like it and want to finish it offline and with the click of a button you can have it mailed to you. (Of course, you can always also print the thing out, but you want to support the people who made it and those little booklets are so well designed you just have to have one.) You could even make the first one free, just click and here it comes, and then you'd want the next one and the next...

Had I time and resources I would happily try this experiment with Wet Asphalt; I would love to offer little booklets of Wet Asphalt material, or even eventually a "Wet Asphalt Reader" in cheap, portable paperback. Perhaps some day.

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 End of the Age is Upon Us

Leah, I forgot to tell you about the gravity and how I felt it! When we took the van this afternoon, just you + me, the whole way I heard the hum, like when you walk into the house and sense a television is on? Electricity at the fringes. I looked up but I couldn't see the ship—she was invisible, tucked into the ice-tail. Still, I could feel the lift, first time ever. Science proves there are all kinds of gravities. Moon ache makes tides. The comet calls us. In two days, we'll get on the scales and they'll say 0.

Fiction by Austin Bunn

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.

Reading the World

In honor of Reading the World 2007, an effort to promote literature in translation, many lit blogs are suggesting and discussing translated books. May I suggest the novels of Jin Yong?

The Duck

This story was originally published in Writer Online, January 31, 2001

A light bulb salesman fell in love with a duck.

He followed the duck to Canada in his little red van, the light bulbs rattling and clicking in their cases.

Past trout, moose, and grizzly bears, and into the tundra, he drove the van, calling to his duck beloved, "Sarah, my darling, will you come to me, will you lay your small head against my knees?"

Driving, sleeping, he dreamt of the duck, of kissing her webbed feet, of laughing together by the lakeside, of holding a can of beer for her to drink from in the summer night.

The duck felt charmed but harassed, the duck felt pity: her name was not Sarah anyway, and she had another lover: the cold and resolute magnetic North Pole, female, indissoluble, old as earth.

The duck flew on, admiring the showy dress her lover put on, the Aurora Borealis.

The salesman drove his van onto an ice floe, took all his light bulbs out and connected them with wires to his car battery; and, floating in the Arctic sea, revving his engine, he competed with the Aurora Borealis, as long as his gas tank held out.

The World's Shortest Critical Manifesto

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