Archive for the ‘Miscellany’ Category

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Genre v. Literature: The eternal struggle?

December 10, 2011

Daniel Abraham’s letter, From Genre to Literature:

…. This artificial separation between us is painful, it is undignified, and it fools no one. In company, we sneer at each other and make those cold, cutting remarks. And why? You laugh at me for telling the same stories again and again. I call you boring and joyless. Is it wrong, my dear, that I hope the cruel things I say of you cut as deeply as the ones you say of me?

But allow me this, dear: what you do is crueler. You take the best of me, my most glorious moments – Ursula LeGuin and Dashiell Hammet, Mary Shelly and Philip Dick – and you claim them for your own. You say that they “transcend genre”. There are no more heartless words than those. You disarm me. You know, I think, that if we were to compare our projects honestly — my best to yours, my mediocrities to yours, our failures lumped together — this division between us would vanish, and so you skim away my cream and mock me for being only milk.

I forgive you. I weep and I resent and I say how little I care what your opinions are. And, let me be honest, dear, I take comfort in the fact that I make more money than you. That my audience is larger. Outside the narrow halls of the academy, my star is brighter. I go to the movies, and I am on every marquee. A television is practically my mirror. My house is larger and warmer, and the people there laugh and weep more loudly. Not all of them are sophisticates. Many of them find comfort and solace in things you consider beneath you. But they are my people, and I love them as they love me.

The relationship ‘twixt “genre fiction” and “literature” is a strange one. If genre fiction is good enough, it must be literature and not genre fiction. Because, well, as we all know, genre cannot be literature.

And in a way it’s true. There is no guarantee that the craftsman who makes the finest knives can actually cook. Nor the farmer who grows the bell peppers, nor rancher with his cattle.

But at the same time, the food metaphor doesn’t hold true. What genre most resents is being treated like cheese doodles while some truly abhorrent literary gastronomica is considered haute cuisine for the simple fact that it is literature, and not genre fiction.

Dining at the Literary TroughOn the other hand, I’ve been in a five-star restaurant that once served me, as a pre-appetizer course, two slices of albino beet with a smear of goat cheese between, a single forkful of something that looked like some potato shreds mixed with overcooked cheese, and a homemade marshmallow with powdered carrot on top. You know, quite literally because the chef felt like dawdling around in the kitchen that day, and that’s what he came up with.

Sometimes people need soul food. Or a bit of greasy spoon. And if you can’t tell the two apart, that’s fine. Because if you ever find yourself in that scene from L.A. Story, at a restaurant called “L’Idiot”, reciting Steve Martin’s refrain—”I’m already finished and I don’t remember eating”—then yes, you will think kindly upon the never-ending hash browns, or a bacon cheeseburger with curly fries and a chocolate shake, or any number of genre foods that have done more than their share to sustain, and even please.

-bd

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Sure, his name is Squiddly Diddly, but that’s an octopus

December 1, 2011

Sy Montgomery on octopi:

His name is Squiddly Diddly ... but he looks like an octopus.

His name is Squiddly Diddly ... but he looks like an octopus.

Measuring the minds of other creatures is a perplexing problem. One yardstick scientists use is brain size, since humans have big brains. But size doesn’t always match smarts. As is well known in electronics, anything can be miniaturized. Small brain size was the evidence once used to argue that birds were stupid—before some birds were proven intelligent enough to compose music, invent dance steps, ask questions, and do math.

Octopuses have the largest brains of any invertebrate. Athena’s is the size of a walnut—as big as the brain of the famous African gray parrot, Alex, who learned to use more than one hundred spoken words meaningfully. That’s proportionally bigger than the brains of most of the largest dinosaurs.

Another measure of intelligence: you can count neurons. The common octopus has about 130 million of them in its brain. A human has 100 billion. But this is where things get weird. Three-fifths of an octopus’s neurons are not in the brain; they’re in its arms.

“It is as if each arm has a mind of its own,” says Peter Godfrey-Smith, a diver, professor of philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and an admirer of octopuses. For example, researchers who cut off an octopus’s arm (which the octopus can regrow) discovered that not only does the arm crawl away on its own, but if the arm meets a food item, it seizes it—and tries to pass it to where the mouth would be if the arm were still connected to its body.

Fascinating stuff. Perhaps we should have an “arms race” to achieve best-selling fiction featuring a talking octopus. You know, something more mystical and philosophical than a Hanna Barbera cartoon.

Okay, okay, I’m sure I could come up with something better than that. Probably. With some thought. But, in truth, I’ve had this link from Orion magazine sitting on my desktop for nearly a month. Sometimes, you know, we can’t let go of an idea without doing something with it.

Which notion, of course, makes for a story in itself.

-bd

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Can I be sarcastic without a disclaimer?

December 1, 2011

Zach Weiner, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, November 30, 2011I would be remiss if I did not point you to Zach Weiner’s latest recent cartoon atrocity frame of profundity.

You know, that little picture on the right. Click it. Go on. It won’t bite.

(You are aware, of course, that I’m being sarcastic? I mean, the bit about the atrocity. SMBC is one of the best comics going on the web. Or is this somehow not a useless disclaimer? Never mind; I’m just confusing myself.)

-bd

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Daniel Defoe and the Zombies

November 15, 2011

Though I’m one who probably ought to be ashamed to only know Daniel Defoe’s name for having once tried to read Robinson Crusoe, and, in truth, being completely ignorant until this very moment that he also penned Moll Flanders, I might suggest the minor buzz rippling across the internet at present suggesting he is also an integral figure in the history of zombie stories piques curiosities far broader and more respectable than mine.

At any rate, Andrew McConnell Stott explains:

Defoe-A Journal of the Plague YearDefoe’s novel, published in 1722, is a mutant factual-fiction that recounts the plague epidemic of 1665, which dispatched almost 100,000 Londoners. Purporting to be the “memorial” of a survivor known only as “H.F.”, it was based on genuine documentary sources, including the diary of Defoe’s uncle.

For something so grounded in fact, A Journal of the Plague Year conforms to the expectations of zombie narratives in almost every way. People look to the skies for the origin of the pestilence, as in George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead; its city of spacious abandonment and grassed-over streets anticipates the empty metropolis of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later; and as the King takes flight and the law implodes, the living are faced with the decision to team-up or go it alone in the style of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, where zombie-battling is merely a skull-cleaving interlude between the real battles for resources.

What A Journal of the Plague Year doesn’t have is zombies—at least not explicitly. Still, the numberless, suppurating victims are apt to behave like the undead at every turn ….

No, really, I’ve got nothing on that. Although … there is an e-text of Dafoe’s story available from the University of Adelaide Library.

-bd

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Chick Lit: A question unto itself?

November 2, 2011

You know you’re emerging from an unproductive period when you find yourself arguing internally about whether or not to blog a link that has been sitting on your desktop for a month. Er, right. Never mind. This isn’t about me.

Rather, let us start with Roxanne Gay, who tries to scrabble together an overview of a question that recently rippled through the publishing world:

Polly Courtney's "It's a Man's World"When you write a book with the title It’s A Man’s World, with the tagline “but it takes a woman to run it,” you have to have some sense that your book is going to be marketed in a certain way. I haven’t read the book in question, but the title certainly gives an impression. Maybe it’s just me but when I see that title, I think “chick lit.” I also enjoy “chick lit,” so that label is not a bad thing. That book’s author, Polly Courtney, recently had a very public reaction to how her book was being marketed as “chick-lit,” announcing she was leaving her publisher, Harper Collins, so her writing wouldn’t be pigeonholed. As writers, we often have to worry about whether or not our work will be pigeonholed based on some aspect of our identity. No one wants their creativity limited or misrepresented; pushing back against rigid, often unfair categories is a natural response for a creative person.

In her explanation for why she was leaving her publisher, Courtney distinguishes between women’s fiction, which she writes, and “chick lit,” which she very much does not. I gather that women’s fiction is serious while “chick lit” is not. She writes, “Don’t get me wrong; chick-lit is a worthy sub-genre and there is absolutely a place for it on the shelves. Some publishers, mine included, are very successful at marketing this genre to women. The problem comes when non-chick lit content is shoe-horned into a frilly “chick-lit” package. Everyone is then disappointed: the author, for seeing his or her work portrayed as such; the readers, for finding there is too much substance in the plot; and the passers-by, who might actually have enjoyed the contents but dismissed the book on the grounds of its frivolous cover.”

Depending on the content of the book in question, Courtney is correct in noting that disappointment is possible for everyone involved in the consumption of a book. At the same time, isn’t a cover is just a cover? Eventually, the writing speaks for itself and either readers will like the work or they won’t. Readers are fairly sophisticated these days, aren’t they? I would like to believe readers will, more often than not, have a good sense of what a book is or isn’t about no matter what is emblazoned across the cover. Unfortunately, such does not seem to be the case and certain books are burdened by covers that alienate certain audiences.

For her own part, Polly Courtney explained the decision to leave HarperCollins in The Guardian:

The term “women’s fiction” has been adopted by publishers and retailers alike as a shorthand for fiction that involves shopping sprees, bodily insecurities and the hunt for Mr Right. No – hang on. That’s “chick lit”, isn’t it?

This is the problem. The line that used to define “chick lit” as a sub-genre of women’s fiction has blurred, giving publishers the authority to brand huge swathes of fiction in pink and green swirly covers, on the assumption that this is what women want. As Margaret Carroll, a fellow ex-HarperCollins author, put it: “Very ironic to find this is an industry run by women.”

I do not labour under any illusion; my novels are not literary masterpieces – but nor are they chick-lit. So, you may ask, why did I sign with an imprint that specialises in high-volume commercial fiction? The answer to this lies in the way that we are trained, as authors, to believe that even so much as a glance from a traditional publishing house is an honour and a privilege. They are the experts. They know more about books than the authors do themselves. We should be grateful that a prestigious publishing house will give us the time of day. It is like a gift from God when a book deal lands in our lap.

I don’t know, so I’ll leave it to everyone else to figure out. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Alternative literature, or, the problem with subjectivity

November 2, 2011

XKCD #971 — Alternative LiteratureOh, just click the link.

-bd

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Happy Birthday, Ray Bradbury!

August 22, 2011

Ray BradburyHappy ninety-first birthday, Mr. Bradbury.

Thank you.

No bad rice for you, sir.

-bd

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