Thursday, May 26, 2011

"Literary"

I recently read Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake (which I liked immensely) and Year of the Flood (which I liked less, but the person recommending the books to me had the opposite reaction, so your mileage may vary). These two books straddle a near-future man-made apocalypse visited upon a hyper-capitalist, post-climate-change world where humanity's primary means of survival are the bizarre and often grotesque genetic engineering projects created by scientists in elite corporate compounds. Atwood has made the claim that these books are not science fiction for two reasons: 1) that they have literary merit and 2) that they contain plausible science. Both of these strike me as more or less the definitions of a good science fiction novel, but Atwood's been bashed from enough corners that I don't feel like I need to add to that here past saying I'm a little confused about why anyone not embarrassed to have written the novels would be embarrassed to call them science fiction.

Mainly, I was intent on using it as a segue into the genre of literary fiction (which, much like post-modernism, seems most intent on defining itself entirely by the exclusion of things it is not. It is not genre (not mystery, horror, fantasy, science fiction, western, thriller, nor romance) nor is it "chick lit" or "mainstream popular fiction").

There seems to be some resentment on both sides of the aisle- weird defensive barbs about the rotting-from-the-inside-out, nihilistic and near-incestuous "literary elite", and the artifice and mind-numbing dullness of their self-indulgent navel-gazing stories where nothing ever happens; upturned noses at trash genre fiction that's nothing but cookie-cutter stock plots, flat, utilitarian characters, unbelievable and paper thin justifications, and gratuitous violence and sex, all in service to banal titillation, rather than elevation of the mind and spirit, or any reflection of real, complex human emotions.

There's ugliness flying in both directions.

Frankly, I don't really understand the vitriol, nor even, entirely, the divisions. Off the top of my head, three of my absolute favorite novels are The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues by Tom Robbins, and the infamous Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. The first is solidly fantasy, through and through. The second falls into the slippery category of magical realism and gets placed consistently on the fiction/literature shelf. The third is Literature with a capital L.

That said, I like all three for pretty much the same reasons. They're whimsical stories populated by memorable, flawed characters, wherein the author has great fun both with the beautiful language of the book and sly winking allusions for the reader to catch; and ultimately they all have something to say about human nature and our place in the universe.

There's a lot of heartbreakingly beautiful literary writing. There's also a fair bit of it that falls short, though not for want of trying, and that's true across any genre you pick up. I'm a much richer person for having read both Austen and Asimov (Hemmingway and Heinlein, Tolkien and Tolstoy, Clarke and Checkov, King and Kafka, I can do this all night), and there's a lot I think genre writers can learn from the literati (I feel weirdly like I'm talking down to people when I say that, like I'm back in the role of substitute teacher).

(Also, I've noticed in my browsings that about half of the stories I've come across published as literary could comfortably find a home in genre).

Anyway, a couple of the things I think literary fiction has to share with its genre brethren (and in my opinion a lot of the best genre fiction already makes spectacular use of literary convention):

-Awareness of and experimentation with form- Prose and narrative are the vehicles by which story is delivered, and what you do to tweak them can vastly and beautifully effect the way the story is perceived. Lately I've looked at some great literary fiction that was written completely out of order, or once utilizing a sort of second parenthetical narrator. Narrative origami, when done well, is a delight to read, and there's no reason it would enhance a story any less just because there were also robots.

-Semiotics- Literary fiction seems to be nothing if not the substituting of one small part for a whole too large to grasp- in fact, I think if I had to make a statement about literary fiction as a genre, that would probably be it, at least in the short form. It's easy to write a story off as being about nothing because it's about a broken cup or a day where two people didn't speak to each other while gardening. But the point may be that that cup came with the character from her old home in Nuevo Leon, where it was hand-made by her mother, and after coming to America she has lost touch with so much of her previous life, but made the cup a symbol of a part of her identity that means more to her than she pretends- cup becomes a condensed icon, focusing a much larger narrative like a laser into one powerful moment. The story may be about the symbol as a stand in, how and why she has made the symbol as she has, and how well others can or cannot read it.

-The understated- I've read some bombastic literary fiction, don't get me wrong, but very often the beauty of the genre is the very simple, even prosaic moments that become profound because of the way in which the author talks about them and the context, both personal and societal, that frames them. It's a fabulous juggling act when it's pulled off well. I think as genre writers we very often use the leeway afforded to us by the types of stories we tell to go bigger and stranger- giant monsters, serial killers, entire space stations falling into the atmosphere of a planet- and I am emphatically not knocking that, because those things are awesome. But I think the ability to intersperse sense of wonder with small, quiet, immediate, and profoundly character driven moments makes for some spectacular fiction.

-Relationships- Over the last couple of weeks I've read or listened to at least fifty literary short stories, this not counting the years of English classes and spare time reading, and I really can't think of any literary story off hand that doesn't have specifically to do with the problematic relationships between people. I think part of the rap literary fiction gets for nihilism comes from the fact that these problems tend not to be solved within the time frame of the story- and frankly if they could be, they would not be compelling problems (I'm tempted to say this is one of the key places literary fiction parts company from the romance novel). Women who feel taken for granted, men emotionally isolated and searching for a way to make a real connection, boys trying to grow into men in the shadows of their fathers, children who can no longer say what they wish they could to dead parents, and so on. Again, it's not like this is absent from genre, it's just often not so much the focus. We also, especially in science fiction and detective fiction, have a bad habit of producing characters that come from nowhere, seeming to have sprung fully formed from the earth without nation, creed, or family (I listened to a fabulous interview in which Mary Anne Mohanraj was about to tear her hair out as an editor from all the stories she received where there was a blank, presumably white male protagonist. (It was not, per se, that the protagonists were presumably white males so much as that there was no description, no information, no history that made them who they were- that absent any identifying factors, the default was straight white male)).

Again, off the top of my head, Rachel Swirsky's Eros, Philia, Agape (which has the dubious honor of being my all-time favorite sex-bot story ever), is full of all of the best tricks of literary fiction, while still being a story about a robot. It has a lot to say about love, freedom, ownership, and agency, and I don't think it could if it were any less a literary story as well.

I guess in conclusion, two dragon thumbs and a blaster up for literary fiction!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

"Skull Honey"

So, because it's been asked, the name of this blog, "Skull Honey" is a roundabout biblical allusion. Though I'm not religious myself, I love a lot of the mythology* of the Bible, particularly in the old testament where events are bizarre, cruel, and weirdly tribal. The story of Samson in the book of Judges is one of my favorites.

Samson is basically a murder machine. The Biblical rationale is that his direct purpose from God is to smite down the Philistines, which is why it's so upsetting to his parents that the first thing he does is get himself engaged to a Philistine woman. On the way to court her, Samson is set upon by a lion. Being a generally Herculean type, he breaks its jaw open, leaves it dead just off the road, and tells no one, though he is much impressed by how clearly this shows that god favors him. When he comes back the same way to attend his wedding, he finds the dead lion still there, but bees have made a hive inside its head. He sticks his hand inside the sun-rotted animal head full of angry, stinging insects, gives it a taste, and finds it's genuinely delicious. That's just how Samson rolls.

At his wedding, he poses a riddle to his Philistine groomsmen: "Out of the strong, something sweet; out of the eater, something to eat." Please bear in mind at this point, Samson is the only person in the world who knows about the lion. His groomsmen threaten to burn his wife and his family alive if she doesn't find out the answer, so she asks Samson, and once she's got the answer, she gives it to the Philistines, causing Samson to lose a bet in which the stakes were nice clothes.

Samson's response is to murder thirty random people for their clothes, which he then gives to the groomsmen. Then he burns all their fields. They respond by killing his wife (whom he had abandoned by this point as untrustworthy) and her father. So he murders a great many more people and goes to hide out in a cave.

The Philistines at this point very sensibly send in an army, and Samson kills them all armed only with the jawbone of an ass. He leads Israel as a hero for many years before the part of the story people are familiar with, wherein he goes to a whore house and meets Delilah, who coos up to him, plies him with sex and big pouty puppy dog eyes and very unsubtley asks him his secret weakness.

He lies to her. Twice. Both times she attempts to cripple and murder him. Then, because Samson is apparently terrible at pattern recognition, he tells her his power is in his long beautiful hair, which is a sign of his covenant with God. So, after he's passed out from yet another go with this woman of ill repute, she cuts his hair off, puts out his eyes, and sets him to work doing hard manual labor, which he suffers for years until his hair has grown back out sufficiently. Then, as soon as he gets the chance, he pulls out the load bearing pillars of a Philistine temple on a big feast/holiday, dying, but taking hundreds of his enemies with him.

What always gets me about this story is the totally unquestioned assumption that Samson is not only a hero but a righteous man of God. The conventional wisdom is that God wanted to punish the Philistines and Samson is the flawed tool by which he accomplished that end (his flaw being in this case less the unprovoked murder and more that he got distracted from it by one of the worst romantic choices in the history of literature), but if you take God out of the equation, you have the portrait of a violent psychopath who is accepted by those around him as a hero and a holy man. The gulf between interpretations and all the room to play around within it is what draws me to the story.

Slightly more specifically, I'd had an image in my head for some time of a rural character who was convinced they were a warrior for God and had built a pile of animal skulls in which they were keeping bees, after the fashion of Samson. When I was looking for a blog title ("Digital Ululation" was the first runner up), I thought about that image, and I liked all that the phrase "skull honey" brought up for me. In addition to the literary illusion, it was grim and sweet, and sounded like a really roundabout, poetic way to say "thoughts".

And that's the story of my blog.





*People will sometimes take issue with applying the word "mythology" to the Bible. I don't dispute anyone's right to take it as literal truth if they like, and I've known a number of both kind and clever people who do. But I do ask that people, irrespective of their belief in its truth or not, admit that it also walks in the fine company of works like the Iliad and the Bhagavad Gita: a collection of semi-historical stories and lessons couched in a specific religious context. A body of work we collectively refer to as myths.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Random

Some random plot and random story generators I've found. The first is my favorite. I've clicked refresh several times and have yet to get a bad story out of it.

Seventh Sanctum
Random Writing Prompt
Random H.P. Lovecraft Story Generator
The Neilson Hayden Overlord Plot Generator

Monday, May 16, 2011

"Against Craft" by Nick Mamatas

This article is available for free through book life and is also featured in Mamatas' new book on writing "Starve Better: Surviving the Endless Horrors of the Writing Life".

I tend to identify as a craftsperson rather than an artist for a number of the reasons he mentions- one of course being that I often produce things I don't consider to be "art", and another very powerful motivation being a desire to distance myself from a number of people I've known who talk about how they are artists. At best, there's a sort of mysticism about creating art that I'm not entirely comfortable with, personally. At worst, I've known people who blustered about how they were artists seemingly to excuse the fact that they didn't have much of a handle on process and were producing works that lacked a degree of basic skill. That sounds snobby- I'm well aware my own work isn't perfect and I have a lot to learn, but that was the difference. My experience with self-identified artists has tended to be a refusal to self-analyze in order to improve. They are artists, and ergo they produce Art, which exists in a kind of mythic gestalt that can't be broken down into word choice, plot, character arc, and the like.

This article gave me a bit to think about. I'm not sure I agree completely, but it certainly got to the heart of my perceptions about what I'm doing here.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Meta

I don't love stories about writing stories. I also don't love plays about putting on plays.

I've tended to be okay with songs about writing songs and movies about making movies. Songs about writing songs- or more often about being a singer- are if nothing else short and often different enough to be interesting. Usually it's hard for various reasons- your country singers are under appreciated, but hopeful and playing for beer and hot wings, your rocker types are burned out on drugs before they can hit the apex of their dream, your lyricists are struggling and living life but eventually putting out something beautiful and utterly unappreciated, your rappers have various haters disrespecting their distinct, fresh style (but what can you do? Haters gonna hate). Movies about movies tend to have some fun, comedically overblown characters, inventive slapstick, and sometimes even a little social commentary, and all of the same holds true for movies about putting on plays. It probably also helps that it comes in a couple of different flavors- the slapstick, the faux documentary, the literary allusion comedy, the thinly veiled jab at real folk, the play within a play, and so on.

Actual plays within actual plays, however, have always kind of put me off. This could very well be selection bias, because I haven't seen a lot of great ones, but I think it's more that it very often seems to me to be by theatre people for theatre people- like the whole thing is a sly wink at a very specific audience as if to say "oh, YOU know how it is." Except I'm not actually a theatre person, so I don't, and more often than not I come away with the feeling that the people who chose to put on the play didn't think anything else could ever be as interesting or important as their own particular art form.

Writing about writing tends to have the same problem, but magnified by the fact that when you put on a play, you at least have a group of people, but a writer writes alone. Without moving around much. And without a great deal of variety in execution. The writer sits down in front of a computer or typewriter, either has something to say immediately or frets until she does, tries to say what she means, then sends it off, often to rejections. And, yes, not having an idea is hard, and yes, rejections hurt and you get discouraged- and that's so often the conflict point people go with: characters who are convinced their writing isn't good enough or maybe they're not cut out to be a writer. It's not as if there aren't times when lonely self-pity is a wonderful conflict to follow, but perhaps it's because this is something I've done myself that I have less sympathy. Perhaps because it's something I've done myself, I have trouble swallowing a lot of the mystical virtuousness people sometimes seem to be trying to get across when they talk about writing. (Off the top of my head, my favorite work in which the main character is a writer is "the Rum Diaries" by Hunter S. Thompson, which is about being a journalist, and is honestly mostly about being Hunter S. Thompson, which is a different thing all together.)

It's funny, on reflection I would love to see a story about a writer who so desperately believed in their story that they were engaged in all sorts of wacky hijinks to make sure it got into the hands of someone who would appreciate it. Breaking into publishing offices, baking it into a cake like a jailhouse file or something. I wouldn't mind seeing a story about an author who was actually horrible, perhaps even self-awarely so, but persisted in torturing the world with the time travelling adventures of Gracknar, the unicorn-riding space barbarian- particularly if it was cleverly written. I think it might be fun to see a story about someone who wrote stories for hot wings and beer, because they had some special relationship with the restaurant owner and he at least liked the writer's stories. I think it would be fun to read a story that chronicled two rival authors taking pot shots at each other in their stories, the way you can watch a rap battle unfold across five or six songs, sometimes albums. I'd love to see a story about someone who takes up writing just to impress the boy or girl of their dreams, and wins success and resentment at something they never really meant to be good at. I wouldn't mind a story where someone has to hide their identity in order to publish and can't enjoy their success as themselves. Or one where they publish something they believe is reprehensible for giant piles of money. Or one where they publish something noble and true and dangerous even though they live in a time or place where it may very well get them killed.

But none of that ever seems to be the story anyone writes about writing. It always seems to revolve around the lonely, quiet nobility of the struggling artist, and the demon of self-doubt they have to move beyond in order to pursue what is so often less a dream than a compulsion.

Somewhere along the way, I got really tired of that story.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Flash and Story a Day Report

For a given definition of "story" I have been putting out one story a day this month despite a convention, a holiday, starting a new job, getting ready to move to a new city, and some ugly virus that knocked me unconscious for 16 hours of one of those days and then hung around to gloat. Which is to say, I've done a bit more flash than I anticipated when I planned this out.

Across my writing history, I've tried a couple of accountability structures. I usually try to keep a thousand word a day average. At various points, I've had a schedule where I had a reliable hour when I wasn't doing anything in particular, which I would devote totally to writing. I've also been part of a group that had a monthly deadline for contests, as well as one where we had a weekly hour free write. And now this, wherein I am obligated to finish a story before I stop working on it.

This seems to work really well for me. I think my best motivator is still hard deadlines, followed by a reliable, scheduled time free from distractions. But as someone capable of doing two and three thousand words in a relatively short stretch, I can finish a small story in one sitting a lot of the time, and it actually feels quite good. I've been a bit more experimental- I'm experimenting with form and playing around a bit with what I'm willing to say constitutes a story, and what I can leave implied (one for example was a totally interior monologue second person future about a man who was perhaps the narrator's lover not recognizing her, while another was mostly setting up an implication of the course of events the viewpoint character was walking away from causing). It's been a lot of fun, and very useful.

I've also been reading up on and referring back to a list of articles about flash structure by Bruce Holland Rogers, whom I've mentioned before as singularly excellent on the subject. Please go check them out.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Sacred Cow Murdering

Dean Wesley Smith has a series of articles entitled Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing. He takes on the task of disabusing the writing public of what he considers to be pernicious myths such as "you can't make any money writing fiction" and "stories get better when you rewrite them". Like any advice, I'd say don't buy it wholesale, but examine it and see what applies to you (for example, you can't make a living writing fiction doesn't apply to you until you have a full compliment of novels and short stories, but that's exactly the point of the article: that just because you can't make money writing fiction at first doesn't mean you can NEVER make money writing fiction). There's some really good stuff in there.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Conventional Experience

(Advance warning and disclaimer: this post contains a lot of names. I'm doing this not in a vein of riding the coat tails of people mentioned, but rather because they're all wonderful people, some of whom you might not have heard of, and they all deserve your attention.)

World Horror Convention was spectacularly fun. I apologize that it's taken me as long as it has to get around to the blogging of it.

The whole experience was very educational for me. My familiarity with horror as a genre is kind of unfortunately skewed- I own almost every annual issue of Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling's Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, and my understanding of both genres is somewhat defined by the fact that I didn't really differentiate within those volumes which stories belonged in which categories. They were all just dark, weird, and lovely. It does, however, mean I have a sample of horror that misses a lot of the greats, as well as broad subsections of the genre that would have fallen outside of Ms. Datlow's general taste. I also wasn't paying so much attention at the time to the authors as I was to the story.

So a lot of World Horror Convention for me was discovering new writers, as well as attaching names to stories I hadn't realized were written by people I should have known. Joe R. Lansdale in particular falls into this latter category. I don't understand why this gentleman isn't the official spokesman for Texas. He's a world class martial artist who writes stories about beating people (and sometimes zombies) into blood-oatmeal in one of the most spectacularly fun, pulpy ways I've ever read. I also was able to have some wonderful conversations with authors like Wrath James White, Rio Youers, and Joel Sutherland, as well as publishers and editors like Jeff Burk and Rose O'Keefe of Eraserhead Press, Boyd Harris of Cutting Block Press (who it turns out had met and remembered my father), the whole adorable, sweet gang from Absolute X Press, and most especially, more than anybody else, author, editor, and general awesome fellow John Skipp, who has got to be the sweetest man working in mutilation ever. I also found out my TA from college, Scott A Johnson, has published 11 apparently excellent books since the last time I saw him. I got to meet fabulous animator Abby Goldsmith, cuddly writer Laura J. Hickman, writer and amazing illustrator Carlton Mellick III, writer R. B. Payne, Thomas Sipos of the Hollywood Investigator, and Denise Broussard. I got to watch Peter Straub, F. Paul Wilson, Cameron Pierce, and a very animated Sarah Langan give accounts, in a darkened room in front of a web camera, of their travails in the zombie apocalypse. And I removed a pen from someone's nasopharyngeal cavity with my teeth, which I think speaks well of how fun the parties were in general.

The panels I attended were universally fun, but my favorites were the panel on Violence and how to do it right, and the panel on Frightening Children for fun and profit. There was a lot of talk about e-books and Twilight (in terms both of people wondering if it could be a gateway horror product, and also bewailing the romantic degradation of a previously scary monster. "What's next?" they would ask, "Zombie Romance?" at which point someone would invariably raise their hand and mention the anthology Rigor Amortis, available in the dealer's room). I also managed to catch several wonderful readings, though my favorite, I have to confess, was the zombie golf comedy "Blood on the Green" by Joel Sutherland, forthcoming in Blood Lite III. Actually several of the panels touched on the close relationship between humor and horror, in terms of building tension and release, and how one can either diffuse or enhance the other. Jack Ketchum gave a hell of a speech in acceptance of the Grand Master of Horror award, and Nate Southard's opening remarks were heart wrenching. Joe Hill was full of hilarious anecdotes. I got a free signed copy of Black and Orange by Benjamin Kane Etheridge. I took extensive notes and now have a backlist of aproximately a gajillion books and stories I need to track down and read.

I didn't stay at the hotel (actually one of the main reasons I attended this conference specifically was that it was local to me) so I ended up getting about three and a half hours sleep a night (though part of that was that I also made a 150 mile round trip to attend a 9 AM job interview on the second day of the convention). In order to save money and not have to miss any panels or readings, I also stocked up on powerbars and munched them in between events, which saved me having to pay for hotel food or go off-site. Depending on your perspective and finances, this is either sound advice or utterly sad.

In terms of what this convention meant to me as a writer, most of what I got from it had to do with building my understanding of the genre and the craft, and building my confidence in what I could achieve from writing as a career. I didn't have much in the way of things to pitch or sell, but I had a great time, and I don't want to understate how wonderful it felt to be among a whole mess of people who loved a good scary story.

Monday, May 2, 2011

"How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Steam"

I do love the Austin Chronicle. Here's an article about the Steampunk Bible, by Jeff VanderMeer and S. J. Chambers, and the general zeitgeist of steampunk ("zeitgeist of steampunk" being a phrase it delights me to have an excuse to type).