Friday, January 23, 2015

Ask Good Questions


Back in December, Adam Claxton wrote here, asking how (and here I paraphrase and oversimplify) a new writer can cope with the despair that seems to be an intrinsic part of being a writer.  I answered him as honestly as I could.  And then an interesting thing happened.

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro picked up the question and used it as the basis for a Locus Online roundtable discussion.

So now such literary luminaries as Peter Straub, Cecelia Holland, Jeffrey Ford, Michael Dirda, and many more (hi, Cat!) have put serious thought into Adam's question.  Simply because it was a good one.

When writers are just starting out, the awareness of how little inflence they have can be enervating.  Yet with one good question, Adam was able to, if only briefly, engage the thoughts of people he must surely admire.

This shows the power of good questions.  They get even more powerful when you ask them of a story you're writing.  Not questions you already know the answers to, but ones you don't.  Questions like "What would a woman really do in this situation?" Or "How would this technology change the people who use it?"  Or (and this is a classic) "Who gets hurt?"

Ask good questions.  Let your story answer them.  You'll be surprised what it has to say.

You can read the Locus Roundtable here.  And you can read the original blogpost here.

Above:  As always, writing advice applies only to those for whom it works.  There are all kinds of writers.  If the above doesn't work for you, you're just not the kind of writer for whom it works.


Thursday, January 22, 2015

[dream diary]


January 21, 2015

Of my final dream of the night, I can remember only four things:

1. It was a serious art-dream.

2.  Its title was OPOSSUM

3.  The last name of its author was La Feignis.

4.  No opossums appeared in the dream.

Above:  Max Ernst.  The man rules.


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Fragmented Masterpiece of Isaac Babel


Over on Facebook, one of my Ukrainian friends asked me why I named my blog Flogging Babel, and wondered whether I'd ever read the works of the great Isaac Babel.

The blog's name came about because I started it in part to promote what was then my new novel, The Dragons of Babel.  Coming from a generation which thought self-promotion something of a character flaw, I chose the word "flogging" as a gentle bit of self-mockery.  In retrospect, I probably should have thought of how odd the title would look a few books down the road.

As for Isaac Babel... Oh, yes.  I once brought a copy of The Red Cavalry Stories with me to Russia, in fact, as my reading material.  If you haven't read the stories yet, I strongly urge them upon you.  They are an intellectual adventure.  But not a light one.  Here, chopped from a longer essay about fix-ups and very lightly rewritten to make it a stand-alone essay, is my take on it.

Isaac Babel’s Shattering Masterpiece

Isaac Babel’s most famous work is The Red Cavalry Stories, ostensibly nothing more than a collection of stories with a common setting and recurrent characters – the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1920 and the soldiers and civilians caught up in it.  By any measure, it is a major work of literature, terrifying, moving, and a judgment on the human condition.  Babel was involved in the war as a propaganda officer, and spent much of his time trying to prevent Cossacks from executing their prisoners.  From the atrocities, rapes, and casual murders he witnessed, he created something of enormous depth.

Yet not all of the stories are impressive as stories.  Some are vignettes or even anecdotes.  They grow in cumulative power as the book is read, events recur, people show themselves in different aspects.  This is an effect that relies heavily on the stories being read in the order presented.  (Babel wrote more Red Cavalry stories after the book’s publication; when they are included, they are grouped separately, as afterthoughts, so as not to interrupt the original structure.)  Read randomly, they would still impress and terrify.  But the work as whole would be greatly diminished.

What makes this particularly interesting is that the stories themselves are seemingly presented in only the loosest order.  A story begins to tell one tale and then is interrupted and goes haring off after a totally different one.  Narratives begun in one story are dropped abruptly, only to be picked up again later in the book.  Events appear out of chronological order.  Characters disappear and then reappear, sometimes greatly altered and other times heartbreakingly unchanged.  Some never turn up again, and the reader may or may not learn what becomes of them.  The narrative intelligence darts from memory to memory, never lingering long, fleeing from one to another like a sleeping man trying to dream his way out of a nightmare.

Taken as a whole, The Red Cavalry Stories looks like nothing so much as the fragments of a novel which cannot be written.

There is a scene in Federico Fellini’s Satiricon set in a workshop where Roman artists are creating  fragmentary mosaics and statues without arms or heads.  Babel’s book can be best understood as that same artistic project taken seriously rather than as a throwaway joke. It is a novel whose continuity has been shattered by the enormities that the author witnessed.

The novel is literature’s ultimate expression of moral sense made structure, a summation and universal comprehension of the world.  So when there is no sense and can be no comprehension, it is inadequate to the task and the artist needs a new form.  Call The Red Cavalry Stories a mosaic novel if you wish or a chimera if you will.  But it is not merely a collection of short stories.

It is a work of traumatized genius.


Monday, January 19, 2015

Alice K. Turner, Last of Her Kind


This is extremely sad.  Alice K. Turner died last night, of pneumonia.  Alice is best known for her twenty years as fiction editor of Playboy for two decades (1980-2000), during which time she was remarkably receptive to science fiction, provided only that it was as good as or better than anything else she might have bought that month.  During her tenure, the fiction -- whether genre or not -- was always worth buying the magazine for.

Alice's attitude toward science fiction showed in the fact that she kept up her association with it after retirement, attending the occasional convention, writing critical essays and, with Michael Andre-Driussi, editing the critical volume Snake's-Hands: The Fiction of John Crowley.  She also wrote The History of Hell, a work of non-fiction.

Alice was a delight to hang out with and talk with.  What she liked, she liked for the best of reasons, all of which she could articulate.  If what you had to say was worth hearing, she would listen to you forever.  But only the most boorish of creatures would attempt to dominate a conversation with her, because her wit and insight were of the finest water.

Alice's good friend, Ellen Datlow, another editor of renown, notes that a friend called her "one of the last grande dames of New York."  Not a bad encomium for a smart, elegant, and wholly admirable woman to receive.

Above: Ellen Datlow's photo of Alice Turner. 


Friday, January 16, 2015

Problems of Literary Success


Back in the early 1980s, when I was a new writer and my generational peers (Pat Cadigan, Bill Gibson, Bruce Sterling, etc., etc.) were blasting holes in science fiction as it was then and building up strange new structures to the empty spaces, I got an invitation from a science fiction club in Dublin to speak there.  They couldn't afford to fly me in from America, they said, but if I was ever in Europe they could cover my travel expenses.

As luck would have it, not long after, Marianne and I decided to go to Ireland, rent a car, and see as much as two human beings possibly could in two weeks.  So I wrote back to say I'd be in Dublin on such and so specific dates and would be happy to talk to and with the club at no expense to them.

No reply.

In the months leading up to the trip, I wrote a few more letters, with the same lack of response.  The last one gave the telephone number of our landlady on Clontarf Road and said they could leave a message for me with her.

No reply.

Standing on the quad of Trinity University, Marianne asked, a little mournfully, "Why can't you get the cool speaking invitations that others writers do?" I could only shrug.

Two weeks later, we were home again.  Two days after that, I received another message from the same science fiction club.  Their secretary had quit, taking with him or her all their correspondence, it said.  But if I was ever in Europe, they'd love to have me come for a talk.

I was put in mind of this story because recently I received an invitation to a part of the world I love and had to turn it down . . . because I'll be in China at the scheduled time.

I'm sure your heart bleeds for me.

Above:  My thanks to Shamil Idiatullin for alerting me to the cover of the Russian edition of The Iron Dragon's Daughter and  The Dragons of Babel.  It looks great, doesn't it?  The artist is Sergey Shikin.


Wednesday, January 14, 2015

This Wonderful Buttery World


I just drove home from Harrisburg and, boy, are my tires armed!  Thank you, ladies and germs.  I'll be here all week.

Seriously, it was great fun attending the Pennsylvania Farm Show.  It's the one time of year when farmers get to strut their stuff and the rest of us get to admire them.  [The Web being what it is, I should mention that I mean that quite seriously.]

This year I was particularly struck by the weight of time and technology behind every aspect of the food we eat.  It takes a lot of concentrated effort and selective breeding to create a Black Breasted Red Old English Game Bantam Chicken.  And the carriages that horses pull nowadays?  George Washington could only dream of their like.

But let's be honest here, it's the butter sculpture everybody wants to see.  So there it is up top, a little murkily photographed but well worth seeing.  Because it includes a butter cow.  You don't get much butter sculpturey-er than that.


Monday, January 12, 2015

Your Moment of Nabokov


A literary figure hounded by an increasingly hostile biographer is a premise ready-made for Vladimir Nabokov's fiction.  So it's ironic that, late in life and at the height of his success, his relationship with Andrew Field, author of four books (and a bibliography) about Nabokov, went from friendship to sourness to reciprocal spite.

In Brian Boyd's Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years (p. 618), Boyd record of Field that, among his many other alleged sins:

Informed that an event he had assigned to 'a wet autumnal day' had in fact taken place 'in July,' he had simply retyped the phrase as 'a wet autumnal day in July.'

Which is a detail so perfectly apt that one wonders it doesn't appear in one of the novels.